Emily Dickinson, “As Frost is best conceived” (951)

“As Frost is best conceived” (951)
Emily Dickinson

As Frost is best conceived
By force of its Result –
Affliction is inferred
By subsequent effect –

If when the sun reveal,
The Garden keep the Gash –
If as the Days resume
The wilted countenance

Cannot correct the crease
Or counteract the stain –
Presumption is Vitality
Was somewhere put in twain.


“If when the sun reveal, / The Garden keep the Gash” ties light (sun) to water and blood (Gash) by way of a Garden. I take “Gash” to refer to the side of Christ pierced to know He had died. How such a “Gash” relates to a “Garden” (Eden?) is unclear initially; there is another way of interpreting the image. One can imagine the sky purple, even fiery red, at sunset. The color of flowers would be a memorial to that moment: all good things must come to an end.

The “Garden” links us, the earthly, with the sky. The catch is that the earthly is a nothingness (“Gash”). We are nothing more than the revelation of the sun, an image of the sky. The “Garden” only counts if we assume it keep the “Gash.”

The linkage of Christ’s suffering and Eden forces us back to the first stanza. We best conceive “Frost” – frozen water – through what it accomplishes forcefully. Similarly, any given hardship is known by its “effect.” It is as if the emotions are only byproducts of utility. Even coldness, a nothingness, is felt because of the “force of its Result.” How do Christ and Eden fit into this? The suffering of Christ resides in Eden, when the sun reveals. The revelation of the sun shows the only result of Eden to be the death of God. That’s actually orthodox to a degree, the “fortunate fall” which necessitates the Resurrection. The blasphemy is in the logic required to make this work: we only know our pain through effect? We only know what was joy through someone else’s pain?

That’s only half the poem. Dickinson’s critique of religion is never so simple, almost never without a critique of human love or reason. If “sun reveal” gave us a “Garden” where time was suspended, now the “Days resume,” perhaps. The garden is wilting, and if effect is all that matters, then we should be redeemed. In that case, we can’t be folded away from God, nor held responsible for His death. It’s easy to say this is just an extension of the critique in the first half of the poem. But we create creases, we create stains. Our very creation of clothes brought both forth; we were naked, innocent in Eden. We’re the ones – religious or not – who have the dumb idea that not getting what we want – providentially or not – reveals pain. We are incredibly cold beings, holding even our own pain to a standard of utility.

Between innocence and experience is “Presumption,” our true “Vitality.” Trying to locate human being in “what is pained” or “who is unjust” puts us in too direct a relation with the divine. The gods only know pleasure, only act justly. We’re not gods: the principle underlying us may be wholly different, “somewhere put in twain” if you will. The awful, stupid logic of figuring out we’re afflicted because we can’t do something is actually a fine starting point. It’s a presumption, taking into account cause and effect, trying to find the correct order in time.


  1. Instead of trying to figure out what she means or what it means to anyone else, try sculpting a meaning out of it that suits your own life, can you? I can.

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