Defiant in Darkness: On Dickinson’s “Me, change! Me, alter!” (268)

“Me, change! Me, alter!” (268)
Emily Dickinson

Me, change! Me, alter!
Then I will, when on the Everlasting Hill
A Smaller Purple grows –
At sunset, or a lesser glow
Flickers upon Cordillera –
At Day’s superior close!


What exactly is the difference between “change” and “alter?” Dickinson forces us to do our homework; “change” is from the Latin cambiare, meaning “exchange.” “Alter” can be a Latin noun itself, meaning “other.” Those two ideas – either the speaker can switch places with someone else, or become something other herself – are obviously not the same thing, but they are treated the same in this poem.

Now what’s curious is her relation to the “Everlasting Hill.” She will switch places (to somewhere), she will transform, when “A Smaller Purple grows” there, or “at sunset,” or when “a lesser glow / Flickers upon Cordillera.” The “Everlasting Hill” stands in contrast to “Cordillera,” a Spanish word for a mountain range so prominent it could define a continent. But the Latin root of that word is “chorda,” meaning “cord.” There’s the implication of a tie that binds being broken when the “lesser glow” only “Flickers upon Cordillera.” The earthly is subordinate to the heavenly, it would seem, except that a hill is not quite as tall or vast as a mountain range.

The heavenly could be the beginning of a great sorrow; it starts “A Smaller Purple” but grows. It could even be a great healing: “A Smaller Purple grows.” Thing is, we do not know where the speaker is standing, or where she may be going. My suspicion is that she is atop the highest mountain and can see the top of the “Everlasting Hill.” She has conquered, but “Day’s superior close” – the end of day “bridges” considerations of the “Hill” and the “Cordillera” – is unconquerable. One could argue, though, that she is nowhere near any of these places: she will only change or alter when time or light relates differently to heaven and earth: she has no plans to move.

But if we take the idea that she is choosing a vantage point, then all of these considerations inform “Then I will,” emphasis on “will.” The “Everlasting Hill” could be necessary in the face of death, despite where she has climbed. She can confront a larger purple from where she stands on my assumption, but perhaps it will make her switch places or transform her to an unacceptable degree. This is perfectly intuitive: even the most serious atheist has to worry about not being nearly as rational with death on one’s mind. The concession to the Everlasting Hill (we don’t know if she will go there, she seems to be only thinking about it) – whose peak she can presumably see – is not necessarily a cynical one. It can be freely chosen, willed, because all other possibilities have been exhausted.

One can say there is a great blasphemy in this poem – this is not how one should approach God. But it can also be said that to the degree that we’re willful, our first struggle is with time. We climb, trying to stay in the place we want to be even while in motion, even while exploring. Any turn to piety is really characterized by what Dickinson is describing: testimonials are about how something in us, something eternal, moved us where we needed to be. The transformation is clear, and who the speaker may switch places with exactly is no mystery.

1 Comment

  1. aaah, i love these dickenson treatises of yours.

    if i had written this poem, i probably would have used “change” and “alter” for the sound/rhythm.

    as always, her words are wonderfully mysterious and scintillate with all kinds of different possible meanings.

    i’m intrigued by the “me”. some feel that “me” is the most self-centered of the pronouns. perhaps she wants to change self centeredness?

    and perhaps, once she has altered the “me”, she will close the “day” (life?) in a superior way.

    intrigued, also, by the juxtaposition of “everlasting” and “superior” beside “smaller” and “lesser”. maybe once the “me” has changed, she will no longer be small and less.

    or maybe she just felt like building a neat little structure around the word “purple”.

    always fascinated by how different our reactions to these poems are.

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