Themes

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Last Updated on December 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948

Darkness and Discovery

In “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark —,” as in so many literary works, darkness and light signify the conflicting states of incognizance and understanding. However, in Dickinson’s poem, darkness and light are not mere opposites or antonyms. Darkness constitutes the necessary context in which the light of understanding may be kindled. The mind must travel encounter darkness in order to see more clearly.

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To understand how light and dark operate in “We Grow Accustomed to Dark —,” it is helpful to explore the pre-electric context in which the poem was written. As Thomas Becknell notes in his essay in Let There Be Night (2008), darkness was understood and experienced differently before electricity invaded streets and homes.

Throughout human history, night signaled a putting away of the tools and toys, a time of turning inward, of retrospection, of lighting lamps… of waiting…

In Dickinson’s poem, this retrospection and waiting is both a fact of daily living and a process essential to the moment of discovery.

A Moment — We uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road — erect —

The staggered capitalizations of “Moment,” “Vision” and “Dark,” as well as the frequent dashes mimic the movement of a person stumbling, stopping, and finding her way in the dark. But it’s important to note that the way forward cannot be found without the darkness. The goal—“newness”—is “of the night.”

Finally, the mention of the “Road” rings with connotations of a journey. The lone, stumbling traveler thus embarks on an ongoing process of fitting her “Vision” to the “Dark.” The poem ultimately suggests that the quest for understanding is a foray into the endless darkness of unknowing.


Despair and Hope

The poem’s central image of darkness and light can be alternately viewed as a metaphor for the contrasting psychological states of despair and hope. As the neighbor puts away the lamp after witnessing her goodbye, what is left is a darkness more intense than that which existed before the onset of light. The “bravest” hit a figurative tree or two, grope around, and lope ahead even in the penumbra of larger “Darknesses,”

Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The poem can be read as referring to resilience in the face of spiritual and psychological despair: “Those Evenings of the Brain.” Here, the undisclosed “sign” is one of hope, and the absent star a would-be mark of aspiration amidst figurative darkness. Writing of the timeless push and pull of despair and hope in human life, Dickinson neither prescribes nor consoles. As her lines suggest, “We uncertain step,” and, at best, “Life steps almost straight.”


The Bleak Backdrop of the Civil War

The historical context of Dickinson’s composition may shed some light on her subject matter. Dickinson wrote “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark —” in 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-65), a time of chaos and despair for American society at large. In The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974), Richard Sewall notes that the poet was aware of the political turmoil around her. She knew of her father’s abolitionist position and mourned the death of acquaintances and friends who lost their lives in the war. Dickinson’s work was impacted by the war, at both the subconscious and conscious levels. She makes direct reference to war, violence and survivor’s guilt in one of her poems (444):

It feels a shame to be Alive —
When Men so brave — are dead —
One envies the Distinguished Dust —
Permitted — such a Head —

Given this context, the bleakness in “We Grow Accustomed to Dark —” arguably reflects the uncertainty of a war that tore apart American society. The chaotic state of the country in 1862 may partly explain the poem’s undercurrent of resignation. This resignation can be found in the poem’s suggestion of growing “accustomed” to a darkness that may never yield and in the ambiguous “almost” with which “Life steps… straight” in the final line.


The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

In “We Grow Accustomed to Dark —,” Dickinson subtly combines science with spirituality. The poem is often read as a reflection of psychological and spiritual states, whether of obliviousness or despair. In her rendering of these subjective states, Dickinson draws upon the objectivity of scientific fact.

Fascinated by 19th-century discoveries in natural science and technology, Dickinson found wonder in the processes of nature. The evidence of this wonder lies the scientific diction that laces many of Dickinson’s poems: “microscopes,” “comparative anatomy,” “volcanoes,” and “species,” to name a few. Her awe of the natural world informed her spiritual worldview, and it is notable that Dickinson was the only member of her family who was not a devout Christian in adulthood. Instead of organized religion, she sought answers in the workings of nature. And in her observations, she came to recognize the core realities of flux and change. As Joan Kirby quotes from Dickinson’s letters to a friend:

The shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea.

Natural facts flow in a continuum with states of subjectivity for Dickinson, and this is reflected in her poetic technique. In “We Grow Accustomed to Dark,” the central metaphor is, at one level, a natural fact. In darkness, the human pupil dilates to let in more light and improve vision. The eye does indeed get more “accustomed to the dark,” even on clouded, moonless nights that disclose “no sign.” On a metaphorical level, the spirit also adjusts such darkness and to “evenings of the brain.” Thus, Dickinson draws adeptly from natural observation in her depictions of spiritual and psychological states.

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