Reading too much into risk: On Dickinson’s “We like a Hairbreadth ‘scape…” (1175)

“We like a Hairbreadth ‘scape…” (1175)
Emily Dickinson

We like a Hairbreadth ‘scape
It tingles in the Mind
Far after Act or Accident
Like paragraphs of Wind

If we had ventured less
The Breeze were not so fine
That reaches to our utmost Hair
Its Tentacles divine.

Comment:

The narrator speaks about risk and the “lesson” learned. In the first stanza, she invokes an experience all of us have, nearly escaping death or some grotesque mishap that might cost us a limb or organ, but she doesn’t dwell on the combination of exhilaration and fear. That is saved for the second stanza, where “ventured” implies the former and “Tentacles” the latter. But the second stanza begins with “If,” as if to say the volatile combination of a near-death/near-disfiguring experience is our imagining. This is perilously close to saying death is imagined.

We have to go back and see how Dickinson’s narrator is playing with an idea that itself is a “Hairbreadth ‘scape” from another one. The first thing we notice is “like” in the first stanza – maybe we didn’t escape after all. The “act” (deliberate) or “accident” (product of chance) is still tingling in the mind. “Act” and “accident” are philosophical terms: we know accident to be a “property,” something predicated that is non-essential. “Act,” then, is more than deliberate – it may be constitutive. Let’s say we were doing something dumb like about to put our arm near some farm equipment that would grab it and rip it off. Perhaps Dickinson wants us to focus less on the machine ripping our arm off – it isn’t really a property of the machine to do that, nor a deliberative act – but rather how we, rational animals that we are, put ourselves in a situation where we were less than competent.

So of course we try to read into the situation, “like paragraphs of Wind.” There must be something about our true nature in there, right? I mean, all those people looking at us as klutzy for other things can’t be wrong. But again, “like” shows up. The two similes frame the reality. There was an “act” or “accident,” “it tingles in the mind.”

What the similes do is force us to make a choice: we can make up a narrative (“paragraphs of Wind”), we can focus on what didn’t happen (“Hairbreadth ‘scape”), or we can sit and have a tingling sensation. Our narrator doesn’t like any of these options individually: the second stanza encompasses all these ideas, within a counterfactual. She focuses on what didn’t happen, but in a way different from the “Hairbreadth’s ‘scape” – that is too pointedly linked to death.

She’s interested in life. “Ventured less” recalls “far after” in the first stanza: motion supplants rest. “The Breeze were not so fine” alone links all three images of the first stanza: the tingling feeling is now that of exhilaration; the Wind is not empty, but in a particular form is enjoyed by the speaker; inasmuch it moves her hair, it has moved her to thought. It is because of the “If” statement and the intended consequence that there is a perhaps unintended consequence.

That same Breeze is not passive; it is a force we brought into play. “Reaches to our utmost Hair” makes this breeze sound like it is coming from within. “Tentacles divine” means it grasps because we grasped. Our speaker may think herself immortal, but that is what Medusa was before Perseus chopped her head off. The joke, again, is that we didn’t escape: we ventured forth based on our thoughtlessness, and now we are expecting rationality when we are merely rationalizing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence “It” turned to “Its” when we moved from one stanza to another.

For more:

…the Spartan survivors of the fighting on Sphacteria surrendered to the Athenians and their allies; the captors could not believe that their captives were of the same kind as the Spartans who had fallen [cf. “300,” Thermopylae, etc.]; one of the Athenian allies therefore asked one of the captives out of spite if the slain were perfect gentlemen; the Spartan replied that a spindle (meaning an arrow), i.e. a woman’s tool, would be worth much if it could distinguish between true men and others, thus indicating that it was a matter of chance who had been hit by a missile and who had not (Thucydides, “The Pelopennesian War” IV 40).

– Strauss, “Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War,” p. 218 of “The City and Man”

2 Comments

  1. Isn’t it true? I almost had a nasty accident (ended up running over a large part of tree), and after it was over, and everything was fine, it still lingered. Not only in my mind, but physically, as I couldn’t stop my leg from shaking. But experiences like that make us realize all the good things, and be thankful, and that in itself is divine.

    ~ Kristi

  2. You commented–“She’s interested in life. …the tingling feeling is now that of exhilaration; the Wind is not empty…”

    This, I think, is the key to the poem. The contrast between life and death is what gives life it’s vitality. Her senses are stimulated because she has momentarily faced the antithesis. Whenever we venture, we achieve…perhaps not our original goal…but our lives are enriched through experience…

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