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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Towards Immortality: On Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility…” (657)

“I dwell in Possibility…” (657)
Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of Eye –
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Comment:

“Possibility” is a “fairer House than Prose:” it cannot be the fairest of dwellings because it is possibility, after all. “The fairest” is reserved for visitors to this House, or even, given the ambiguity the dashes create, the activity she engages in: “The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise.”

The “House” is peculiar. Compared with “Prose,” we are tempted to think that it is poetry itself, with Dickinson addressing us as poet. I think that interpretation holds, but I really hate “the theme of this poem is about poetry” line of thought generally, for this reason: a clever reader can make any poem to sound like a comment on poetry. Still, Dickinson mentioned “Prose,” and that implicitly brings up the theme of poetry.

But she doesn’t talk about poetry explicitly – rather, this “House” is open to the air in two ways (“numerous of Windows,” “Gambrels of the Sky”). When you add in the mention of Cedars, you wonder if this is a House at all. Prose might actually be a House, trapping thought. The imagery here reminds one of the forest as Cathedral, only “Gambrels” is a term specific to a barn’s roof. Using that term, she’s discounted any formal religious imagery.

We wonder about the House as natural. Poetry is still a House, of sorts. That it has more Windows allows more light to come in, but also allows the occupant at any given time to see more.

The doors are “superior,” as they are “impregnable” as Cedars are: you can’t see through them. The end of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” has the protagonist looking out at another building, and seeing in the windows what’s going on in each of the different rooms. Each thing happening in each room is starkly different from that happening in any other room. Possibility means choice – when you make a choice, other possibilities are closed to you. The difference is between the “Chambers” (within) and the “Windows” (without): one must choose how to see, and while choices are not necessarily final, one choice does mean another can not be acted on at the same time.

The problem of human vision causes our speaker to muse on what is above: “an Everlasting Roof.” There is a viewpoint which sees all.

But what’s funny about the sky is that we see it, too. The “fairest” Visitor might as well be an angel – it is the visit to possibility which makes one “fairest.” “This” is parallel with “Prose” in the first stanza: whereas Prose was a static House, the noun “occupation” strongly implies a verb, and we are given a distinct description of an action: “The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise.” “Spreading wide” implies wings, but what fascinates most is the “wide”/”narrow” duality: the Hands, by themselves, are narrow. “Spread,” they’re wide.

This is not a poem necessarily about poetry when all is said – it is a poem that uses the idea of the speaker as poet to make a point about the nature of thought. Thoughts are possibilities: each one implies a perspective. To dwell in possibility seems impossible, since to keep every thought alive all at once is impossible. Hence, “not-prose,” not merely thoughts stated as propositions, but something more social, and something ultimately mystical. A way of communicating that brings the audience to places you stood, and lets them see as you did, and lets them discover for themselves. The speaker actually is dwelling in possibility: the divine does indeed flow from the natural.

6 Comments

  1. Hey man, On the underworld thing, I completely agree! I watched the first movie and totally enjoyed it, but with the second release I can barely remember what happened in that movie… lol

  2. [Re: loyalkng. We were talking on his blog about a movie series called Underworld which stars the amazingly hot Kate Beckinsale. Unfortunately, the quality of these movies started with "OK, B-movie cheese that's watchable," and moved to "holy crap this could be the worst movie ever made. No really." They're planning on making a third one.]

    I am aware, re: this post, that “she” is an unclear antecedent in the second sentence of my commentary, and that “Poetry” in the 4th paragraph seems to come out of nowhere. I’m leaving both things be for now, I may edit more later.

  3. The speaker actually is dwelling in possibility: the divine does indeed flow from the natural.

    Unless of Course the divine created the natural..

  4. @ David: I tend to avoid what I feel are Dickinson’s shriller poems – there are ones where the atheism is a bit too blunt, it seems to me. And I’m not knocking her atheism, but more the tone I feel I’m getting: it’s hard to get through them, at least for me at this stage.

    Here, if she’s rejecting the idea the Word Created, she’s doing it for the sake of introducing a counterfactual, a “what if” question: What would immortality on Earth be like, truly? It can’t just be us being the same human form but living longer, because these bodies and 99% of what we do are geared towards mortality. It also can’t just be “being remembered,” because that gives “us” no activity. We – even not present on this Earth – need to be “active” in a sense. That activity I think is being described in the poem: the conditions for thought are what an immortal presents.

    To get to the “what if,” though, “Paradise” needs to be redefined as something Earthly. The idea that there’s a life beyond has to be conceived in entirely human terms.

  5. Felix de Villiers

    March 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I fear I may not have much of an intelligent comment to make.

    The poem seems to express some of my basic assumptions about the arts, that they are not ends in themselves, but reach beyond themselves, through numerous windows and doors.

    The space they infitrate breaks domestic boundaries. The gambrels, here, are the everlating roofs of the skies, nevertheless evoking an absent cottage.

    Before this we have had the negative counterpoint in the “…cedars -/Impregnable of eye

    This is the most enigmatic of passages.
    My interpretations seem too obvious.
    I feel this impregnability with all the great poetry and music that I know well: that they shut a door in order to open one and do both things simultaneously. They have to be impenetrable to allow penetration and will always have this two-sided character.

    The cedars make us think of the East, of something biblical. I read “- the fairest-” in the plural – Visitors is written with a capital letter – the release of cryptic tensions is moving in the thin hands that spread out wide. And the stop on -this – before releasing the long final cadence.

    ‘Occupation’ is a rather shockingly mundane word, but may be E. D. used such words on purpose, to cut out lyrical pathos, for her special brand of sobriety.

    With her dashes she seems to want to hesitste, isolate words, to make us think about their relationship to other words.

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