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A Consideration Regarding Mourning: On Dickinson’s "To hang our head – ostensibly…" (105)

“To hang our head – ostensibly…” (105)
Emily Dickinson

To hang our head – ostensibly –
And subsequent, to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind –

Affords the sly presumption
That in so dense a fuzz –
You – too – take Cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of Gauze!

Comment:

The “ostensible” which is externally viewed is contrasted with an internal “posture” after it has been attempted. We tried to hang our head, and then found our mind to be of a different disposition. The entire second stanza is an attempt to make sense of this happening, but what just happened?

The closest experience which comes into my mind is attending a funeral and not being terribly sad. Not because the dead deserves scorn, but because the “immortal mind” may recognize death as another part of life – whether the dead are around or not, there’s much to do, perhaps bills to pay or jury duty or even another funeral to attend later. That experience may not match what the poem is describing, however. The implied contrast could be that we, after hanging our heads and forcing upon each other a most public sorrow, are secretly joyous.

In any case, the second stanza in typical Dickinsonian manner makes the problems introduced by the first stanza look like child’s play. The temporal progression is repeated, except that this time the head is not hung, but there is an attempt to see “in so dense a fuzz.” In response to that failed attempt, “Cobweb attitudes” are taken “upon a plane of Gauze.” The “our” has dropped away, the public is now the private, but a private in which everyone indulges. Further, the “finding” of the first stanza has been replaced by an explicit action: there was “hanging,” then “finding,” both rather passive endeavors, and now there is “seeing” followed by “taking.”

You may question my reading “seeing” into this poem, but I think it has to be read into it. “Ostensibly” demands that treatment. If the head were simply hung, then what would follow is a simple expression of grief. Instead, what we find is a problem defining the public, that of a sorrow that can never be entirely sincere since no society loses its will to survive as some who grieve do. In fact, we can conceive the most noble things as stemming from loss. This public “problem” could have emerged because of the threefold nature of a colorless individual confusion: “fuzz,” “Cobweb” and “Gauze.” – If we are confused, how can our immortal mind possibly apprehend grief? –

“Fuzz” is from scraps of things, parts that only serve to blind us to the whole. The “Cobweb attitudes,” I think, are like things stored in the attic. We bring out our solemn, ancient customs when we have lost for that moment only – no one really understands why the customs were initiated. Finally, if parts of things and the past weren’t enough to throw us into complete confusion, there’s the “Gauze.” “Gauze” could mean a mist or haze, it could be a nearly transparent material, or it could also refer to the bandages we usually think of. I think it might have all three definitions in this poem: our present injury might be the reason why we don’t truly mourn. The fuzz isn’t as dense as it seems, for it could not be equated with cobwebs otherwise. We can see: we’re just not choosing to.

And now we see why our speaker has chosen to call this whole line of reasoning a “sly presumption.” The “plane of Gauze” trumps all: our immortal mind may not be in mourning now, but our individual grief is very real, as that plane of Gauze is all we have to traverse in life.

3 Comments

  1. great commentary, as usual! I was wondering though, why is that the author can express her thoughts in 8 lines, whereas it takes us 50 + to decipher them?

    Just an annoying, and perhaps condescending, thought.

  2. The reason is that Dickinson
    achieved an incredible density
    of expression, an off the charts ratio of cognition per word. To paraphrase Harold Bloom, it just doesn’t seem fair that she could cram so much meaning into so few words. That is why she is one
    of the greatest of the canon,
    and why the rest of us are
    left to expend many more words
    in attempting to uncover and comprehend her multiplex meanings.

  3. Time indefinite is sealed into our hearts.
    There, death is to abstruse.
    Mortal logic rips apart,
    And emotional moorings shake loose.

    Therefore, communication is suspended.
    The heart given time to mend.
    With a numbing fog the mind’s defended,
    While on auto-pilot archives we depend.

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