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The Description Of Pain In Emily Dickinson’s Poetry Essay, Research Paper

The Description Of Pain In Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

In her description of pain, Emily Dickinson treats its effects on both the body and the soul. In poem 244, she presents a comparison between physical and psychological pain. According to poem 806, pain is a state through which the soul gets liberated from the body. The poet also describes the way Doctors struggle with pain and find themselves helpless in front of some kinds of it as in poems 177 and 396. Another phenomenon that is associated with extreme pain is described in poem 599.

1. Pain has Great Effects on the Body and the Soul

The Comparison between Physical and Psychological Pain

The poem 244 illustrates how emotional pain prevents any kind of enjoyment or work. It is easy for a person to work when the soul is at play, or when everything is going all right. But, when one is in pain and his thoughts are also dismal or sad from other causes, it is hard to keep on with regular tasks:

It is easy to work when the soul is at play -

But when the soul is in pain -

The hearing him put his playthings up

Makes work difficult – then —

It is simple, to ache in the Bone, or the Rind –

But Gimlets – among the nerve -

Mangle daintier – terribler -

Like a Panther in the Glove –

The first line of that poem indicates a universal role “It is easy to work when the soul is at play–” When the spirit is feeling well, the body would engage in working without any difficulty. Both body and soul would then be in harmony. But if the soul is in pain, work becomes very difficult. The soul does not accept even to hear its holder put his “playthings up”.

To stress the importance of emotional pain the speaker makes a comparison between physical and psychological pain. According to the persona, physical pain is simple and easy when compared to psychological pain. To strengthen this idea, an extreme example of physical pain is used:

It is simple, to ache in the Bone, or the Rind -

It is simple to ache in the bones as with rheumatism or age,

for example or in the rind (bark of a tree, poetically meaning the skin of human beings). But when paralleled with what happens to “nerves”, physical pain becomes an easy thing. Nerves here may be referring to feelings and emotions.

The degree of pain suffered by “nerves” is illustrated by likening it to the work of gimlets in wood pieces. As the gimlet turns rapidly round its pointed head to make a hole into wooden pieces, sharp pain attacks the feelings to do much more harm than a gimlet would do to wood.

The speaker uses the gimlet to illustrate the degree of the pain. However, she would remind the reader that the pain is harder and terribler than the stated example would suggest.

The last line presents a challenging representation:

Like a panther in the glove

When gimlets are digging around in one’s nerves (when he is deeply “on edge”) then it all feels like a “panther in the glove.” Simply imagine a panther, clawing around in a glove you are wearing. Its claws dig in and scrape, driving the patient into a terrible state of pain.

In sum, when the world is going all right, pain is not too hard to take. But when one’s thoughts are going badly, it can be extremely difficult to take pain. The state of mind has tremendous power over the way we react to pain.

However, according to Cynthia Hallen, the glove in this poem has a figurative meaning. A glove is a protective covering for the hand; but its figurative meaning here is “skin; protective covering on nerve fibers.” . Therefore, the illustration “panther in the glove” could be a representation of the degree of pain. The feelings of the sufferer would be as if a panther were constantly clawing around inside his skin. It is surely a strange representation. And it could be aimed at depicting how horrifying and sinister the state of pain is.

Pain Unveils the Real Value of the Man:

According to Emily Dickinson, when pain visits the body, it does not do that only to inflict harm and distress. Pain is rather fruitful and of great outcome to the human being. Therefore, the poet gives a very noble role to pain in poem 806:

A Plated Life — diversified

With Gold and Silver Pain

To prove the presence of the Ore

In Particles — ’tis when

A Value struggle — it exist–

A Power — will proclaim

Although Annihilation pile

Whole Chaoses on Him –

According to that poem, life is plated with different degrees and kinds of pain in order to uncover its real value. The whole operation is compared to what is done to ore to get precious metals from it. The heat and fire that ore is subjected to, is like the heat and suffering of pain that the human being goes through. The outcome is comparable as well. While, through the use of fire we could get precious metals like silver and gold, through pain the soul achieves the heights where it becomes a pure light and gets rid of the burden of the body.

As one critic states: ” ‘ORE’ literally means the mineral matter that precious metals are situated in. The poem speaks of proving or refining the ore to purify the gold and silver particles therein. This is a metaphor for the process that humans go through in mortality to prepare them for life as beings of light in the next world.”

In the second stanza, the speaker puts the reader in front of a real controversy. As the body is surrendering to pain, and even death, the soul is getting freed from the body imprisonment:

A Value struggle — it exist–

A Power — will proclaim

Although Annihilation pile

Whole Chaoses on Him -

Therefore, in spite of the body starting to decay, “A Power – will proclaim”. Once the body is dead, its components start to decompose. The speaker describes this operation as if annihilation is piling Chaos on the dead. The personification of annihilation is a way to deepen the effect of the image of what is taking place in the scene. Emily Dickinson uses the tool of personification very frequently. It enables her to make abstract meanings nearer and stronger in the eye and the ear of the reader.

Depicting the suffering of the terminal pain as an operation through which the “ore” of the man is liberated, the speaker would be saying that pain is a price that must be paid to liberate the soul from the body. The “ore” here is certainly not physical. It is not a substance that would appear as a result of the equation: Pain + Body = Ore. The “ore” here is the soul itself: the soul in its full invisibility departing from its flesh as if it was “laying off an Overcoat of Clay” as the poem 976 states:

Death is a Dialogue between

The Spirit and the Dust.

“Dissolve” says Death – The Spirit “Sir

I have another Trust” -

Death doubts it – Argues from the Ground -

The Spirit turns away

Just laying off for evidence

An Overcoat of Clay

The tool that is used by death to force the spirit to dissolve is not mentioned in 976. However, poems on pain make it clear that death can not fulfill its mission unless it was assisted by the presence of pain. When the latter reaches unsupportable degrees, the body (the overcoat of Clay) becomes no more a possible dwelling for the soul, forcing it thus to leave.

B. Pain Defeats Surgeons:

Pain is always associated with physicians and surgeons. They intervene to try to assuage it and heal the sick. However, pain proves to be stronger in the end. Then Doctors have no choice other than announce that a strength “Mightier than” them has done the job. By then, it becomes clear that they have to announce that “the skill is late”.

When Emily Dickinson talks about Doctors, she always refers to them as “Surgeons”. She does not mention “Physicians”. They possibly called physicians surgeons in her time.

The poet mentions Surgeons in poems 396, 177 and 108.

In poem 177, the speaker begs for the skill to instill the pain. She wants to have a capability to heal pain that neither surgeons nor herb can soften.

This poem is a prayer for the knowledge of pain healing. The persona is engaged emotionally, possibly because she is the victim of pain. Therefore, the speaker begs Necromancy warmly to help her. Calling Necromancy sweet and reminding her of her great knowledge, the speaker is attempting to arrive ther aim of convincing Necromancy to deliver her the secret of pain alleviating. After the first two lines of praise, the sufferer announces her plea:

Ah, Necromancy Sweet!

Ah, Wizard erudite!

Teach me the skill,

That I instill the pain

Surgeons assuage in vain,

Nor Herb of all the plain

Can heal!

The plea comes as both herb (medicine) and surgeons fail to deal with pain. The degree of pain here exceeds the level that surgeons could fight even if they would use the herb of “all the plain”. It is then necessary, as both herb and surgeons become of no utility, to turn to something else. But who would be able to do what the doctor fails at doing? The speaker in the poem goes to sorcery as an alternative. She believes that Necromancy has far more knowledge and skill than educated surgeons do.

The personification of Necromancy allows the speaker to address her as the last hope against the attacks of pain. The failure of the surgeon leaves the path open for supernatural solutions, or at least hopes for delivery. When the pain attacks either the body or the soul, the sufferer would think only of a way to get past his agony, no matter what the means is. If the surgeon and the surgeon’s herb betray the sick, the latter would certainly seek help elsewhere.

The way the speaker addresses its plea informs that she is under great pain. In fact, when pain is mentioned in Emily Dickinson’s poems, it is always utter, extreme and in most cases terminal.

It is then the surgeon’s failure that opens the way for supernatural choices. The problem here is that the surgeon was not asked to assist the sick to declare that he can do nothing. The surgeon, physician or Doctor is not expected to fail. Their failure is very costly.

Doing his job on a regular basis, the surgeon would not show the same impressions that the sick or his family would. Doctors know that illness is unavoidable. They also know that in many cases, it becomes detrimental. In front of that, they learn how to be calm and wise, showing reactions that would make others think that Doctors are “severe”. This idea is strongly presented in poem 396:

There is a Languor of the Life

More imminent than pain -

‘Tis pain’s successor – when the Soul

Has suffered all it can -

A Drowsiness – diffuses -

A Dimness like a fog

Envelops Consciousness -

As Mists – obliterate a Cray

The Surgeon — does not blanch — at pain -

His Habit – is severe -

But tell him that it ceased to feel -

The Creature lying there -

And he will tell you – skill is late -

A Mightier than He -

Has ministered before Him -

There’s no Vitality.

The second half of this poem is reserved to describing the reaction of the surgeon in front of his failure to alleviate the pain. Unlike those surrounding the patient, “the surgeon does not blanch at pain”. He is accustomed to scenes of people suffering their last struggle with ache. Therefore, as a matter of habit, the surgeon appears to others to be uninterested in the suffering he is witnessing. This is why the speaker characterizes the habit of the surgeon to be “severe”:

The Surgeon — does not blanch — at pain -

His Habit – is severe -

It is a critical moment when the surgeon is standing helpless in front of a dying person. When all that the doctor could do is waiting for the end of his patient’s life, he must appear to be in the weakest of his positions. This could be why we see that the surgeon is informed not informing of the news:

But tell him that it ceased to feel -

The Creature lying there -

As it becomes clear that the patient has departed to the other world, that he “ceased to feel”, the surgeon is supposed to give some kind of an explanation. He has to remind us that fate is stronger than him. The surgeon, in front of the dead body, becomes the first to pronounce some words of condolence, reminding the shocked entourage that this death is a state everybody must experience. The last stanza gives the answer that the surgeon would pronounce:

And he will tell you – skill is late -

A Mightier than He -

Has ministered before Him -

There’s no Vitality.

Once the surgeon is sure no remedy is possible, he would remind us that he has no governing power on the sick or their bodies. The Doctor would point us to a strength that is “mightier” than him. Life, in the end, is a matter that God only can start or end.

The surgeon loses the battle against the pain. As he does, he is looked at in the light of what he achieved. When his intervention brings no happy ends, he cannot avoid the contempt and misunderstanding that the patient’s family would show him at least implicitly.

In general, the poem 396 describes a moment that the sufferer and the Doctor share. The first loses conscience gradually as he loses life itself and the second watches helplessly as his knowledge and tools become of no effect.

It is possible that Emily Dickinson did not have a very good judgement on Doctors. This could be reflected in a letter that she wrote to Judge Otis Phillips Lord. The letter contains the following joke:

“Nurse,” says [the doctor], kind of high and haughty-like, “what is your opinion?”

“Doctor,” says [the Nurse], kind of low and deferential-like, “I am of your opinion.”

And what was his opinion? asked the listener.

“Lord bless you, my dear, [says the Nurse], he hadn’t any!”

This joke along with the description of the Doctor’s reaction in front of pain shows that Emily Dickinson did not trust Medicine people very much. However, the poet does talk to surgeons giving them advice, in poem 108:

Surgeons must be very careful

When they take the knife!

Underneath their fine incisions

Stirs the Culprit – Life!

In one stanza, the speaker stresses on the importance of surgeons being careful with their job. They must pay extreme attention to what their hands get engaged in doing. The reason for that is very clear: underneath the power and authority of the surgeon’s knife exists the sacred life. Life is called “culprit” in the last line in what could be a reference to the fact that the role of the surgeon is to pursue it and avoid its escape from the body.

3. Pain evokes Hallucinations:

As pain grows harder, its effect passes from the organs of the body to interrupt the ordinary functions of the mind. The sufferer would then lose his control on his sight and hearing. Memories interfere and a state that is neither sleep nor awakening starts dominating the conscience of the victim.

An example of this degree of pain is described in poem 599. The poem explains how pain brings with it hallucinations that lead the patient to see and live in imagination things that can never be done in reality. The sights that the pain brings take the victim into a trip that a healthy person could never be taken through:

There is a pain – so utter -

It swallows substance up -

Then covers the Abyss with Trance -

So memory can step

Around – across – upon it -

As one within a swoon -

Goes safely – where an open eye -

Would drop Him – Bone by Bone

The first two lines of the poem indicate that the degree of pain is “so utter” that “it swallows substance up”. By indicating this, the speaker makes it clear that the pain here is not an ordinary pang or a light cough. It is rather a real pain of a tremendous impact on both the body and the soul.

The poem is written in the present tense. It is not a story of a particular experience that the speaker might have passed through. It is rather a situation that could happen to anybody at any time, were that person to suffer pain as utter as that described in the poem.

Pain is depicted in the poem as if it were a giant creature that is able to absorb in itself anything. It knows no distance and nothing stands in front of it. With its limitless strength, pain swallows up substance/existence and goes forward to fill the abyss with trance. The memory profits the opportunity to fly through zones it never explores in ordinary situations:

So memory can step

Around – across – upon it -

This game, allowed for but once, is done by the memory in great energy. Therefore, the memory goes in every direction “around – across – upon” the abyss. While doing that, the images that pass through mind of the sufferer must be so full of movement and magic that they stay engraved in the memory forever.

The poem contains an example of simile. The state of the mind while under the utter pain causes it to go into a world of fantasy that could be likened to that a sleeping person experience during a dream. Therefore, the movements made by the memory, while suffering from the hallucinations of pain are like those seen in a dream: impossible to take place in an awakening person’s life:

As one within a swoon -

Goes safely – where an open eye -

Would drop Him – Bone by Bone

The sleep allows the sleeping person to go where he could not do were he awakened. For example, during a dream, one might see oneself jump from a plane without any damage to his body. However, that would not happen in real life. Pain, then, causes a situation that is similar to dreaming but which is different from it. It is one of the phenomena that extreme pain brings about: hallucinations.

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