Holding Attention: On Emily Dickinson’s “So the Eyes accost – and sunder…” (752)

“So the Eyes accost – and sunder…” (752)
Emily Dickinson

So the Eyes accost – and sunder
In an Audience –
Stamped – occasionally – forever –
So may Countenance

Entertain – without addressing
Countenance of One
In a Neighboring Horizon –
Gone – as soon as known –


Countenance in Old French is contenir, “to hold with;” entertain is entretenir (OF), Latin intertenere, “among/between, to hold.”

There is a tension in the phrase “may Countenance Entertain.” One’s manner may hold another, may hold a group of people. But “entertain” taken literally could mean that one who is entertaining is actually a product of the audience’s perception. One is beheld by others, not so much holding oneself. This literally means that “Countenance of One” cannot be addressed; the time countenance entertains is the most fleeting of moments.

The opening of the poem is not a puzzle meant to be solved. It only exists to make one look further in the poem. “Eyes” could be the two on a face, and “sunder” means they each go in different directions. Or maybe “eyes” are just pairs of eyes, and no one can really make eye contact in public situations, so all pairs of eyes are separate. The latter reading makes sense now that we skipped to the second stanza. But “In an Audience” and “Stamped – occasionally – forever” still make absolutely no sense.

So again, we skip ahead. The fleeting moment where the impression we make on others can hold them does not address what that impression consists in. In other words: you don’t really know why your charm works, especially not at the moment it is working. “In a Neighboring Horizon:” the being of the self is split from its own appearance. Logically, this makes no sense, but this is how life actually is. One’s own field of vision – one’s own self-knowledge – is bounded by one’s own appearance.

“In a Neighboring Horizon” parallels with “In an Audience.” The audience separated the eyes, leaving them with no other task but “accosting” – to behold and know is not their privilege. The Neighboring Horizon, on the other hand, is the split itself between the self. The irony: “So the Eyes accost,” seeming at first to be about the individual, is actually about the public; “So may Countenance” is about the private.

The separated eyes, the glances, are “stamped.” They mark each of us in a room. They are literally “occasionally – forever,” both. Because of the occasion, they exist. “Forever” probably because if we remember meeting another’s eyes, that’s the only way we may remember them.

“Gone – as soon as known,” then, may not be tragic. It may be the case that we do come to find out our public persona, and reconcile it with who we truly are. But that line of reasoning is a trap: the first 3 lines parallel the last 5 too well. “So the Eyes accost” = “So may Countenance entertain.”

What’s happening in the last line is not that we’re finding ourselves truly, but that another is finding us truly, and dissolving our charm. The sense of mystery that attracts lovers is gone. The poem is tragic, and the theme is finally revealed. This has been about beauty, and why it is truly fleeting. It has nothing to do with the fact things decay. It has everything to do with our memories.

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