illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Start Free Trial

Student Question

What is the significance of the poem "I Like a Look of Agony"?

The poem, can be seen as a criticism of society, as individuals tend to mask the truth about their emotions or current situation, yet through an intense amount of suffering, the truth emerges. The truth serves as a connection that is formed with the writer and the subject.

In terms of structure the poem is composed of two quatraints. The two quatraints are written with a common meter, alternating with 8 and 6 syllables. Dickinson believed that poetry was sacrilegous, hence a common meter, typically used in religious hymns, suggests the influence of religion on Dickinson. The whole poem contains three dashes, possibly to indicate a shift in thought or as an parathetical device for emphasis. The capitlization of certain words could possibly be to further emphasize the theme.

The theme of finding aboslute truth in abosolute agony, exsists within the poem. The poem finds something beautiful in something dreadful. The tone of the poem is different amongst Dickinson's poems as she wishes pain on others rather than dicussing her own emotions. Through the diction used such as, "convulsion, a and Anguish" suggests an intense amount of suffering. The detailed imagery, appealing to the sense of touch, "The Beads upon the Forehead", suggest that Dickinson has seen someone in agony and has clearly enjoyed it.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

You have come up with some very good thoughts to start you off. Essentially, this poem is all about the conflict between honesty and superficial masks that we wear in society. The poem deliberately begins with a line that should make us sit up and take note, as we do not expect anybody to "like" the "look of Agony" that comes across people's faces when they die. However, as we read on, we can understand what Dickinson is trying to argue. In the fact of death, nobody "shams" or "stimulates" dying. In fact, death is "impossible to feign" as opposed to so many other emotions and feelings during life, which we feign all the time. The force of the poem therefore lies in the way in which death is depicted as something desirable and favoured. Consider the diction of the last two lines:

The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

Anguish is described as being "homely" as it is personified as strining the beads of sweat on the face of the person who is about to die. There is something paradoxical in this image, but it helps to reinforce the central theme. In a world where so many of our responses, feelings and emotions are not genuine, there is something reassuring about the way in which death forces us to be radically honest. There is no faking in the face of death.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial