The Gruesomeness of Emily Dickinson: "I’ve seen a Dying Eye"

“I’ve seen a Dying Eye”
Emily Dickinson

I’ve seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room —
In search of Something — as it seemed —
Then Cloudier become —
And then — obscure with Fog —
And then — be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
‘Twere blessed to have seen —

Commentary:

Mystery and movement have been themes of other Dickinson poems, but the theme was concerned with “love” in those poems. This grotesque little poem is more explicitly about death, as one sees in the first line.

That “seeing” is what makes the poem particularly obscene: we picture an eye in the socket moving every which way, and all the while something happening to it: it starts to lose its brightness until we shut it (“soldered down”). That soldering down marks an end to its movement, and its more distinctive function of making things obvious.

But while the speaker firmly places herself at the beginning outside the “dying eye,” we can tell from “run round and round a room” that someone in their deathbed wouldn’t be moving about. Further, what is seen happening in the eye from the outside can also be used to describe what is happening to a subject’s field of vision. That subject is perhaps the “dying eye” of another, whose end we cannot tell – “in search of Something — as it seemed?” – and in fact, we don’t even know if he has a goal in searching. Our speaker can be said to have at least one goal in reciting what she has seen, which is making sense of it. And our speaker’s eye, while not dying at that moment, is part of a dying animal.

So what’s going on? As mystery increases and movement ceases, we have two people to consider: one who passes away and sees something “blessed,” and another reflecting on that. Are there two different perspectives at play in this poem?

With all that in mind, note that there is a third thing the movement of the poem could be referring to: clouds and earth. That movement is what unlocks the whole poem. Clouds start up there, fog is right here on the earth’s surface, and then, “soldered down:” it’s like the earth is a cloud that is fixed.

How does one, though, make sense of that? We could take the dying man and say as his vision grows cloudier, he appreciates his brief time on earth, and thinks this time he had divine. The way we would reach that conclusion is by saying that the dying man is defined by his need for solace, and an embracing of mystery and acceptance of limitation thus create his vision.

But if we say that, it could be a sick joke about us, and the fact that many of us never even think about what could constitute a proper understanding of life until the moment we’re about to die. So let’s imagine one man on a deathbed, and our speaker watching someone mourn him, or thinking about herself mourn.

She’s running around crying, not knowing where she’s going, and the tears make the eyes cloudy and movement is as if it were in a fog. To be soldered down is the one time the speaker/mourner might see properly, might see the dying person instead of her own grief.

To romanticize the earth isn’t enough to come to grips with death. The only way one is going to understand the significance of it all is to see that our time on earth is our time with each other. Once we’re gone, who knows. When that is seen, of course, “life” is what is blessed, and death is something that can only be accepted. One can’t wail or grieve because life is a different sort of movement, not one that erects monuments to itself, but one that seeks Something, somewhere.

4 Comments

  1. There are two ways that you could look at this. One is that this poem is told from a third person perspective, simply viewing both people and relaying the interaction between them.

    The other option is to go the total awareness route. Years ago I read somewhere, and I cant quite recall where, that in some more ancient spiritualities right before death you reach a point where you somewhat gain omniscience. Though its only for a fleeting moment that this happens, because you can see everything it feels like forever.

    I’m fairly sure that Dickinson wasn’t too in-the-know on concepts of eastern mystical faiths but if someone has thought along those lines before why couldn’t she?

  2. Ashok, I know quite obviously she is describing death. But can that be an analogy for something else? You mention that she usually discusses love in her poems. I think it is from the perspective of watching something die, but what? A person, a beast, a feeling? I think that it refers to the emotion of love, of watching that love die in another’s eye. What do they see us as now? They will never tell. But even this is sophomorish at best. Really don’t know.

    Let’s try to get together tonight. I was outrageously busy last night and by the time I was done I needed to be alone. The week has been a roller coaster of sorts. My thoughts have been scattered and dark (to say the least).

  3. Evan Andersen

    This was the quickest way to get this out. ‘I am nobody’, the poem by Emily Dickinson, hits the nail on the head about life in maturation. An admiring bog is a mass of people whom get but what the few frogs take for granted. Evan Andersen thinks that if the Frog where to be generous, then the bog would take for granted whom the Frog is and would portend to be that Frog. In questioning whom then the other Frog might be, the only questions lays to rest is; are you nobody too? Love it. The only cipher to the code.

    Evan Andersen

  4. I think the poem,like many of Emily Dickinson’s poems, is trying to catch a Glimpse of God, which she had heard we may see at the moment of Death.
    She obseved the dying closely to see whether they were so “blessed.” As usual, in this poem, the results are inconclusive, but she’s still hopeful.

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