Poem of the week

What mystery pervades a well! by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson
Sending postcards to the future … Emily Dickinson.
Shamefaced confession: I’ve been renewing my library copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson for more than a year. It’s the perfect dipping-book, utterly reliable for a moment’s, or an hour’s, refreshment. There’s no poet who’s so consistently disconcerting, fascinating, odd-angled. Like Stephen Hawking, Dickinson takes you to the edge of the cosmos – which may be billions of light years away or at your back door. And it’s the cosmos in microcosm, of course – another advantage. Dickinson’s brevity convinces you that poems were never meant to be long or ostensibly complicated.

So it’s high time I faced my chronic indecision and made a choice of Dickinson Poem of the Week (and, yes, bought my own copy of the Complete Poems). From a possible 1,775, I’ve picked number 1,400, the one that begins “What mystery pervades a well!”

It’s a strange poem, “floorless”, in a sense, and perhaps not flawless. The well appears to be a real one, not a metaphysical source of spiritual refreshment, but Dickinson’s first stroke in the poem is to defamiliarise it, transform it into a kind of black hole. There’s no friendly face at the bottom as there is for Seamus Heaney, another poetic well-fancier. The startling personification of the water as “A neighbor from another world / Residing in a jar,” may briefly conjure thoughts of the genii in the bottle – but only briefly. The “lid of glass” takes us down further into the unfathomable depths of the jar, bringing the realisation that only the surface of the water would be visible. There’s a lot more beneath. In a jaunty tone, Dickinson offers us the “abyss”.

The grass beside the well, buoyantly undisturbed, leads to an analogy with sedge which is growing near the sea on much shakier ground. “Floorless” is such a brilliantly unsettling word, it seems that Dickinson wants to stop us in our tracks with it. So she shortens that line, making it the end-word, and adds the leftover foot-and-a-bit of “and does no” to the next: “And does no timidity betray”. Note that the grass and sedge are personified, like the water, and are also masculine. Nature remains traditionally feminine.

The repeated “e” rhymes in the third and fourth stanzas sound awkward. A run of four (he/me/be/sea), the last two unexpectedly consecutive, must be deliberate. Like the sedge as the waves break over it, the fourth stanza struggles for foothold, and seems designed to remain a little unfinished.

There’s an earlier poem that begins, “Bring me the sunset in a cup, / Reckon the morning’s flagons up / And say how many Dew, / Tell me how far the morning leaps – / Tell me what time the weaver sleeps, / Who spun these nets of blue!” Nature here is as immeasurable as in the “well” poem, but “she” is still resplendently present and active. Dickinson is a poet of vivid sight: her work records innumerable sunsets, flowers and bees in glowing, specific colour. The well, by contrast, is colourless; sinister and still.

The fact that the well is a man-made object doesn’t deter Dickinson from identifying it with the natural world. But the images by which Nature is evoked – a haunted house, a ghost – are disturbing. The Nature that impinges on the human world, and interests the speaker, remains a stranger. Is it only a shadow, like the shadows in Plato’s cave? Haunted houses are best avoided, of course. But “ghost” has a bigger theological meaning than mere spook. To “simplify” Nature’s ghost might be to “know the mind of God.”

Ultimately, the experience broached seems incomplete. The poem withdraws into a warning against arrogance: the arrogance of science, perhaps, and the arrogance of poetry. The narrator surely includes herself among those who know Nature, but whose knowledge turns out to be insufficient. The aphoristic last lines are a little lesson on humility.

The further the poem moves into abstraction, the deeper it seems to plunge into a well where words reflect no light. It admits defeat. And yet, by making deliberate imaginative “mistakes” – like seeing the water as a neighbour who lives in a jar – the speaker surely has presented us with a wonderful replica of her well. She is not Stephen Hawking, but a Martian, sending postcards to the future. Her bold comparisons and personifications may explain nothing, but they bring us thrillingly close to her sense of awe. And science has never yet shown us that awe at our surroundings is inappropriate.

What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar

Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!

The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.

Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray

But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.