Last Reviewed on November 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760
Emily Dickinson composed “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark —” in 1862. Here, as in many of her poems, Dickinson uses ballad meter, an alternation between tetrameter and trimeter—four and three beats, respectively—that produces a songlike rhythm. The stanzas conform to an ABCB rhyme scheme. In all but the fourth stanza, the B rhymes are slanted, relying entirely on consonance (e.g., “Brain” and “within.”) These rhyme features are also typical of Dickinson’s work, and she uses them to thematic effect in this poem.
In the first stanza, Dickinson introduces the central image: the dark. The speaker says that “We grow accustomed to the Dark — / When light is put away —.” This statement functions at two levels. It has a thematic significance that unfolds over the course of the poem. At this level, “the Dark” is figurative and thus the statement can be read as yielding broader truths. On a more concrete level, Dickinson offers us a scene in which the speaker encounters “the Dark” upon leaving her neighbor’s home. At this level, the light from the neighbor’s lamp dims as the speaker progresses into the darkness of the road.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes the moment when one “uncertain step[s]” into darkness. It is a moment of adjustment and adaptation, made necessary by the “newness of the night.” This adaptation occurs by “fit[ting] our Vision to the Dark —” and stepping forth into the road “erect,” having found a provisional grasp of the surroundings. Dickinson renders this threshold moment through caesura, employing her signature em dash in the middle of the first and third lines. These halting em dashes, along with the stanza’s alternating capitalizations, produce a staggering effect that mimics the awkward gait of the poem’s speaker.
In the third stanza, Dickinson traces the metaphorical meaning of darkness, connecting it to states of mind and soul. Such states she describes as “larger — Darknesses — / Those Evenings of the Brain —.” Dickinson does not explain the nature of these “larger” states of interior darkness, but there are two legitimate readings. First, these “Evenings of the Brain” correspond to states of incognizance. When one encounters the unknown, the mind is occluded, and “not a Moon disclose a sign — / Or Star — come out — within —.” That is to say, one’s mental points of reference and significance are absent, leaving one incapable of navigating the world. Second, these “Evening” states may be read as moods of despair or depression. By such a reading, the absent “sign” or “Star” points to an absence of hope. This reading is bolstered by the traditional use of stars as symbols of aspiration.
In the fourth stanza, Dickinson addresses the clumsiness and pain that accompany the process of moving through darkness. She cites “the Bravest,” who “grope a little — / And sometimes hit a Tree / Directly in the Forehead —.” The specific reference to the forehead is significant in that it gestures, through metonymy, to the mental darkness mapped out in the prior stanza. Thus, this image connects the literal and figurative levels of the poem.
In the final stanza, the speaker suggests that “Either the Darkness alters — / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight —.” Although Dickinson frames these lines as a pair of possibilities, they can be read as equivalent. Specifically, the word “alters” can suggest either that the darkness is diminished or—more likely—that the darkness forces the speaker to see more clearly. Ultimately, the speaker’s sight adapts to the dim surroundings, and “Life steps almost straight.” This final line does not connote triumph or ensured success so much as a provisional solution. Dickinson’s diction—in particular “almost”—suggests a tenuous and temporary balance.
Dickinson’s use of slant rhyme advances the themes and metaphors of the poem. In the second stanza, the second and fourth lines end with the words “night” and “erect,” respectively. These two words share a final consonant sound “t,” but they have no other similarity. In the third stanza, “Brain” and “within” are slant rhymes as well, both ending with the consonant sound “n.” These slant rhymes approximate the uncertainty of those who walk out into the night. The penultimate stanza offers a perfect end rhyme in “Tree” and “see,” hinting at a forthcoming resolution, both in music and meaning. But the final stanza returns to slant rhyme, and the poem ends with a rhyme of “sight” and “straight.” This uneasy tone is a fitting conclusion to the poem, for it matches the uneasy and provisional footing described in the final stanza.
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