Emily Dickinson, “A Thought went up my mind today” (701)

A Thought went up my mind today (701)
Emily Dickinson

A Thought went up my mind today –
That I have had before –
But did not finish – some way back –
I could not fix the Year –

Nor where it went – nor why it came
The second time to me –
Nor definitely, what it was –
Have I the Art to say –

But somewhere – in my Soul – I know –
I’ve met the Thing before –
It just reminded me – ’twas all –
And came my way no more –

Comment:

This seems an atheist’s testimony to me. I could be very wrong. The riddle looks like it demands fairly specific answers, and I admit I don’t have a clue what context might be.

To support the thesis: the poem moves from “Thought” to “Thing.” The “Thought” was/becomes a “Thing.” Moreover, “mind” in the first stanza is replaced by “Soul” in the last. Most significant is the departure from “my mind” to “my way.” The cryptic details are emphatic that a self is being made; faith is not being rejected simply here. In fact, it is operative.

But faith in what? “Went up my mind today:” even if we don’t know when “a chill went down my spine” originated, this phrase sounds like the lower passion (fear, lust, reflex) governed not just the higher, but the highest. Still, Dickinson’s speaker says it is a “thought” which was ultimately responsible. There may be thoughts that start in the mind which are impossible to differentiate from emotion. Usually we would say some external stimulus causes a reaction to which we devote thought. We think we’re thinking, but we’re really dominated by one feeling. Here, it is as if a proposition was considered on high, found to be irrefutable, and given to the members as fact.

If so, we can be very specific about what this thought is: I am going to die. Don’t I need to believe something? I think that solves the riddle of “had before” and “did not finish.” Whatever this thought/thing is, it sounds like an object that can be possessed (faith like a mustard seed?) and a task (faith like a mustard seed). And yes, I do think Dickinson’s speaker is making a morbid joke: would have finished with this problem before, but couldn’t set the date for going abroad. The biggest riddle is “the second time,” and that too falls by the wayside. Everyone – believers and non-believers – can divide their lives into periods of belief in something, no matter how small or large, and a general disinterest in any sort of belief. And when you do make that division, note that it is atemporal. There is a realization which trumps all other moments and experiences – they were just distractions. Now something is believed or not to such a degree it might as well be known.

Again, despite the jokes – “Art” I am taking to imply the phrase “art of divination” – this is not atheism of the sort we have for the most part today. This takes very seriously we are confronted with problems that require something almost supernatural to intervene. It is concerned with problems of the “spirit,” which are nowadays pretty much reducible to New Age insanity or powerful combinations of pharmaceuticals. The last stanza could be described as a reaction to this “thought’s” lack of definition. Inasmuch as the “Thought” has become a “Thing,” is it not alien from her, and therefore entirely rejected? It’s not that simple: she articulates the existence of her own “Soul” and says this “Thing” resides “somewhere” in it. This she knows. There is some sort of relationship between faith and self-knowledge at play (there’s also the question of how one “knows” or has “met” not-being, which she seems to have artfully avoided). Then again, because she has the self-knowledge she needs, she’s already done with this “second” consideration. She’s on her way, and there’s no fear. Will there be a third reminder? Maybe, but “my way” seems fixed in a larger sense.

3 Comments

  1. My first reaction is i haven’t the foggiest idea what she’s talking about. In a class, i’d want to say something glib, like shes talking about genius/idea’s formation and how the come into being, but i don’t think thats what this is about.

    I like your take, but one question before i accept it all:
    A. If this is an atheists testimony, then why go out of her way to speak of “soul”- which so intertwined with the idea of an altered state(meaning multiple realities- with the unseen as a counterpoint – God-Angels- and Souls of course)?
    The attitude of this poem is strangely wistful, there’s no urgency at all.For the speaker its as if it doesn’t really matter what the subject or message is – so i’m left wondering what i’m supposed to do with that knowledge or thought that’s half recorded/remembered.

    I always have fun when you pull out the Dickinson!

  2. You can use “soul” in a secular sense. I think it would be near impossible to prove Socrates was a believer, and Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” shows some deep doubts about what kind of god is possible. But they’re using a word that means something close to “soul.” “Soul” in this case could be “psyche:” not quite a matter of “will” (more general than thought), but something like “mental/social phenomena not quite reducible to materialist accounts.” And even then, one has to wonder. “Nutritive soul” isn’t a metaphor – it is about how plants function in the world.

    I’ll let you know more about this when I give “De Anima” a real read. That’ll happen when I’m done a first read of all the Platonic dialogues, which should be in the next couple of months.

  3. i think she’s discussing immortality. mean, she’s a big fan of it, and it seems like she’s remembering something she hasn’t expirienced, like deja-vu, except it isn’t a series of actions, but a thing that reminds your brain of something that you haven’t expirienced, but seems familiar anyway

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