Emily Dickinson, “The difference between Despair” (305)

With thanks to Ian Skemp and Grace Pham

The difference between Despair (305)
Emily Dickinson

The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –


The difference between Despair and Fear is like that between “the instant of a Wreck” and “when the Wreck has been.” Ian Skemp rightly noted the peculiarity of “between:” how on earth can anything be possibly “between” the instant and when something “has been?” There’s even more ambiguity: we can separate “Between the instant of a Wreck” entirely from “And when the Wreck has been.” Perhaps the difference lies wholly within the “instant of a Wreck,” whatever that may mean. And it may lie wholly within “when the Wreck has been,” also.

Note also the issues of “like” and “One” in the first stanza. “One” I suspect brings us to the second stanza. “Motion” toward something else (the mind apprehends) means two points are involved; “smooth” indicates those points cannot be at rest in the same plane. Any motion the mind seems to make horizontally is not truly motion. It is simply in the same place. The oneness of mind makes it the eye upon the forehead of a bust. It may be the case that we are talking about the eye that belongs to the bust, or the eye belonging to the observer looking at the bust. I’m leaning toward the latter: we know we cannot see the past truly. The bust is a whole of sorts as is the mind, precisely because some of the most pertinent information has been purposely excluded from view.

We now can understand the “Wreck” of the first stanza. The “One” sits between present and past. The future cannot be seen and thus cannot be accounted. The lack of a future means that the “instant of a Wreck” and “when the Wreck has been” are both infinitely divisible. We wonder over and over where exactly things took a turn for the worse. We wonder about the actual moment things got worse as well as whether it could have been avoided or not. That’s the difference between despair and fear, and it isn’t very much. Both in Dickinson’s accounting deny the future.

Hobbes would probably say some anxiety is a good thing as it aids preparedness. It gets us ready for the future. I don’t quite see that happening in this poem. What I see is paralyzing either way, foresight having been replaced by forehead (of a bust, no less). You could try to say that “despair” is the actual damage of the Wreck (“instant”) and “fear” is more realistic, as the “Wreck” actually “has been.” But that brings back the problem all over again: isn’t the initial Wreck “despair” itself? It seems fear is born of despair. I’m not saying Dickinson’s speaker thinks we should always think happy thoughts. It’s more like the anxiety Hobbes talks about involves something else that refuses to be “contented” because it cannot see.


  1. A fantastic post. I love the possibilities bestowed within Dickinson’s poetry. For instance, this poem to me is all about the impossibility of definition. That to try to control what ‘Fear’ and ‘Despair’ are, through artifices such as simile, are to transforming the living, breathing experience of humanity into a false human construction. The ‘Bust’ represents this false construction, a cold facsimile of real existence that is ultimately myopic.

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