Thoughts on an Emily Dickinson Poem

Earn yourself some journal points by responding to this, thoughfully of course.
Before class yesterday, I sought out an answer to a question I'd long had to one of Emily Dickinson's poems. I sent my query to a list I'm on, the Society for the Study of American Women Writers. Below is my query and the responses I've received so far. Hopefully you'll find they are of interest.

Original Question

I'm hoping someone smarter than me, of which I know there are many on this list, can help me with my reading of Emily Dickinson's "This Consciousness that is aware" (J. 822, F. 819).

I have a problem with the second stanza, and it's been bugging me for years. Here's the stanza:

Is Traversing the interval
Experience between
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men--

I want the "and" of the third line to be an article, an 'a', but I don't know if I can do this. If I read it as an indefinite article, then the sentence makes perfect sense to me (as it begins in the first stanza/quatrain). But if I have to read that "and" as a conjunction, well, I don't know what to make of it. Click "read more" for the responses I've received.

Ben Friedlander Response from University of Maine

I too take it that the stanza continues a sentence begun the stanza before. I take it also that the word order has been twisted a little for the sake of rhythm, and that a "that" has been elided for the same reason. So I read the sentence this way:

This Conciousness ... / ... / Will be the one aware ... / ... that itself alone / Is traversing the interval / between Experience / And [that] most profound Experiment / Appointed unto Men

Basically, we all die alone, and who knows what will come next.

Judith Scholes respone from University of British Columbia

A fair copy in Dickinson’s hand (see my transcription below) places “This Consciousness that” on one line, which prompts me to read (as a likely option) “is aware” and “Is traversing the interval” as a parallelism, following from the first line of the poem (“This Consciousness that / is aware / ... /... / ... / and that.../ Is traversing the interval”)

This Consciousness that
is aware
Of Neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware
of Death
And that itself alone

Is traversing the interval
Experience between
And most profound
Appointed unto Men -

How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and None
Shall make discovery.

Adventure most unto
The Soul condemned to be -
Attended by a single
Its own identity.

(image available:

For this copy, I'm inclined to read "And most profound" as qualifying "Experience," and purposely splitting (coming between) the implicit phrase, "Experience between Experiment." In other words, a "profound"-ness of "Experience," and not simply "Experience," comes "between Experiment / Appointed unto Men -."

Taken altogether the second stanza would read like so: ["This Consciousness that"] "Is traversing the interval" / [is a "most profound"] "Experience between /... /Experiment / Appointed unto Men -"

To present it in this straightforward fashion, however, demands the use or at least implicit suggestion of the indefinite article, which I suspect Dickinson was avoiding altogether (since her phrasing totally resists it).

Jon Miller's response from the University of Akron

I love these questions. I read it as one of the poems that attempt to reason about the afterlife.

This Consciousness that is aware
Of Neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And [this same consciousness] itself alone

Is traversing [first] the interval
Experience between
And [second, the] most profound experiment Appointed unto Men --

In other words, this consciousness will experience (a) neighbors and the sun, then (b) death, then (c) you know, "the interval experience between" (i.e., whatever happens between death and the final lasting afterlife ... is this not often a subject in her poems), then (d) "the most profound experiment / Appointed unto Men," which culminates, I guess, in a change to some kind of final state ... resurrection, judgment, heaven, who knows what exactly. Experiment here I read as "trial" or to quote Webster "a trial; an act or operation designed to discover some unknown truth." And "appointed" I read as "fixed" or "decreed."

Webster has a good rant about "unto" in his dictionary, which I believe Dickinson studied:

UNTO: of no use in the language, as it expresses no more than "to." I do not find it in our mother tongue, nor is it ever used in popular discourse. It is found in writers of former times, but is entirely obsolete.

This helps with the final two stanzas.

How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and None
Shall make discovery --

I read as--

How equal to this consciousness
The consciousness's peculiar qualities shall be This consciousness to this consciousness and no consciousnesses Shall make discovery --

That's a mouthful, but if we substitute "soul" for "consciousness" (as the final stanza authorizes), it is easier --

How equal to this soul
The soul's peculiar qualities shall be
The soul to the soul and no souls
Shall make discovery --

This is the scary thing (the "condemned" thing) about "the interval experience between" -- you are stuck with just yourself, your consciousness. Nothing else, and nothing to discover. There will be no sensory data for the soul to experience; the body is dead. And it sounds like the speaker of the poem does not expect that the soul will discover new peculiar qualities about itself -- or discover anything at all, for that matter. "No souls / Shall make discovery -- "

The final stanza puts what might be a humorous twist on the whole meditation.

Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be -
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.

Long story short, we all die and then the soul goes on for an interval with nothing but itself for a companion.

I like how our "identity" -- the "properties" that are "adequate" to the "soul" -- comes out as a dog at the end.

But I wonder. Does this Hound of identity romp alongside the soul? Or does it dog the soul?

I am grateful that the Hound "attends" the soul -- other words ("hunted," for example) would be more terrifying.

Christanne Miller's response from University at Buffalo SUNY

Hi--maybe I can help.

"This Consciousness that is aware" (F 817) has a fairly typical syntactic inversion in the second stanza, continuing the sentence that begins in the first:

This Consciousness . . . Will be the one aware of Death And that itself alone

Is traversing the interval
Experience between
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men -

i.e. this consciousness will be aware that itself alone is traversing the interval between Experience and Death (ie the most profound experiment . . .).

Dickinson may play on some ambiguities, but the syntax is perfectly clear, I think, especially given that she so often uses this kind of inversion and allusion back to a previously mentioned subject or concept (in this case, "Death").

Hope this is useful.



eats, shoots, and leaves

I find myself agreeing with Ms. Oliver, but perhaps we're missing the appropriate flow of how the poem should be read. I like Judith Scholes' draft of the passage because it provides a bit more context. What do we think of the notion that Dickinson intended "And most profound experiment" as something to be read in an almost parenthetical tone? Run with me on this: "This Consciousness that is aware of neighbors and the sun, will be the one aware of death and that itself alone is traversing the interval experience (and most profound experiment) appointed unto men" Yes, I agree with Jennie that the interval is definitely life, but couldn't life also be taken as an experiment of sorts? Its like Dickinson is saying "life is a journey and an experiment that is solely (spelling) in your conscious." Very humbling indeed.
Its all MHO, of course. Thoughts?

and . . . experiment

The next question in the queue becomes, who is doing the experimenting? Us as we live life? The C/creator (assuming he/she/it has consciousness in Dickinson's mind).



pilot seat

I would say that we are doing the experimenting. I find it harder to think of the experiment from a supernatural point or from the point of a divine creator, conscious or not. But thats MHO

could say that

But what do you think, knowing what you know about Dickinson, who she thinks is doing the experimenting? Conducting an experiment is a conscious choice, not one we make, despite the way we fumble/experiment our way through life. Could, for Dickinson, mankind be the grand experiment of a creator?



what would aristotle do?

It could, in a sense, be the project of some grand designer. But there is also the possibility that there is no greater designer. I don't know, could be the Sartesian strain showing itself in me but I preferr to err on the side of humans being in control (lit review whats up)

knowing what I know about Dickinson.....

could be put into a thimble, or could fill an ocean. What I know, as a scholar, about Dickinson is not what she sought to communicate, from what I know as a taster of her poems. As a scholar,I would say Dickinson was not an atheist, therefore she did acknowledge a Creator, and she did refer to the Creator's "most profound experiment", not as mankind in general, but the experiment in self-nonawareness awareness and this "hound" of incomplete identity "dogging" one's entire "interval".

not an atheist

But not an orthodox Christian either. Probably more of a Unitarian, which I am wholly unable to explain, because Unitarians are Christian in one sense, but they don't accept the notion of the father, son, and holy ghost (Trinitarianism). They also reject the notion of original sin, among others. They'd have Cotton Mather and the early Puritans spinning in their graves.




I seemed to get the impression that this "interval" she writes of is referring to our life here on earth after we are born and before we die? Though we are exposed to other people in this life, in the end it is only our consciousness that we have to be aware of ourselves, others, and ultimately our experience here on earth. The "And" really does throw you off. It definitely rolls off the tongue better when replacing the "And" with an "A". I guess I also see how the last two lines of the stanza could be about the experience of life here on earth and how it is appointed to our souls to evolve through the experience?

My head hurts

After reading this section over, and over, and over again I just could not wrap my brain around what Emily Dickinson was saying in this stanza. Like you said, it works perfectly (at least to me) when we replace the "And" with an "A." Perhaps the "Experience between" and the "most profound experiment" are supposed to be two different incidents, and the "and" is connecting them together, what those experiences are is far from my knowledge. Or she could have not been able to create the proper flow she needed in this poem and simply took the following word out, like Ben Friedlander says in his responds. Either way that's Emily Dickinson for you, always trying to make you think.

What daughters can't say to fathers

(And this "gift" of consciousness is someone's joke...who is He to be singling out men to bear awareness of their identity, without endowing adequate properties to either share the knowledge or to know itself completely...a dog chasing after it's own "tale".) Is this hell?

go with Dickinson

We might ask who or what this is that is endowing us (men and women) consciousness--our Creator as Jefferson put it, God as others before and after him see it, evolutionary biology for others. For Dickinson, there is no doubt, not a shred of a question, that this is to be read as all of humanity, not just men and I don't know that she sees a male God either. At least I've read nothing to that end. But it may be hell she is indicating. As most of the answers above indicate, it's that interval between life and death, if there is an interval. I like the way Willa Cather put it in the final two lines of "Paul's Case," after Paul commits suicide by jumping in front of a train:

He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.



The interval between life and death

We are born....then we proceed to death; that is the "interval". Would the hound have caused Emily such consternation, if this lonely awareness occurred solely in those moments in "Paul's Case", or is the interval "hell" because of this acknowledged creator-given inadequacy in being truly known, by oneself, and by others, ever?

Loved your use of Cather by the way.

living the interval

between life and death? I can't quite see that, but more important, I'm not sure there's any justification for looking at Dickinson seeing that. Many of her poems, I heard a fly buzz when I died, are about this interval, whatever it may be, whenever it may occur. It might more particularly be the interval between consciousness and death, but I don't think we can look at anything she's written and see her talking about the whole of our life as being the interval between life and death.



red-headed pot stirring

If we can't look at Dickinson's work and see life as the interval between engress and egress, then what is the interval? Regardless of belief in an afterlife, wouldn't the time we spend conscious on earth be an interval of sorts?


As I re-read this poem, I guess that could be, but then I have to ask this: What is the "most profound experiment / Appointed unto Men--"? Consciousness of course. So, we are then left to ask, what is the "interval experience" between that and, well, Dickinson doesn't say, except it's a most profound experiment. An afterlife perhaps? Nothingness?



too fine a point

Perhaps its like this, simply put: our time on the earth (life) is the experience and experiment. Experiment because, lets be honest, there really is no instruction manual on life (though god knows we need one sometime). I think the areas outside the experience/experiment could be an afterlife or nothingness but when taken into consideration Dickinson is probably speaking wholly on life in this piece, they become less relevant.

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