Emily Dickinson, “A nearness to Tremendousness” (963)

A nearness to Tremendousness (963)
Emily Dickinson

A nearness to Tremendousness —
An Agony procures —
Affliction ranges Boundlessness —
Vicinity to Laws

Contentment’s quiet Suburb —
Affliction cannot stay
In Acres — Its Location
Is Illocality —


Perhaps pain is a privation. If so, what “Agony procures” is a large nothing; it is Tremendous, but not quite. Still reading just the first two lines: we can say the immense struggle of an agony makes us think everything is at stake. Our individual experience makes a claim on the cosmos. That becomes explicit with “Vicinity to Laws:” the question we ask writhing in pain is “How could this be happening to me? Is this a just universe in any sense?”

But I cheated. I skipped to the end of the first stanza; after your reading Dickinson with me for the past 5 years, we know how methodical she is. “Affliction ranges Boundlessness:” laws are very much a boundary. If “affliction” moves through the whole of what is boundless, it reaches the boundary of the boundless, so to speak. It finds an actual place, a vicinity, near an instantiation of boundaries themeselves.

Note well “Tremendousness” and “Boundlessness.” These are predicates turned into nouns. One has a “range” governing a host of objects tremendous. “Tremendousness” suggests the significance of agony and its generality. “Boundlessness” probably cannot range over any object save God or Nothing. Beings are delimited. The funny thing is that “Boundlessness” feels more specific than “Tremendousness.” It is associated with the “Vicinity to Laws;” “affliction” is actually situated there and isn’t simply nearby. Even the fact “Boundlessness” is later in the poem implies it is more specific in some sense. Usually I think of Dickinson’s speakers as thinking through a problem themselves and trying to reach a question a provisional conclusion. Perhaps we have to make a bit of a leap and associate “Boundlessness” with something specific, with freedom.

So now we have a cosmic set of issues – the moral weight of the universe versus our desire to be free as related to pain. The moral weight of the universe is triggered in our imagination by immense pain. But it sounds like our want to be free causes “affliction.” This is too simplistic: the two problems talk past one another. If we add them up and say that our desire to be free causes us pain which we then yell at God about, the poem becomes awfully pedantic. (Of course, that is life for most of us.) Something else is going on. “Procures,” “ranges” are the motion of pain in the first stanza. They drop out in the second stanza: “contentment,” “stay.” Struggle and freedom are the more fundamental issues in the first stanza. The problem there is being moved versus moving.

The second stanza brings us to a point of rest. “Sub-urb” is probably meant to make us think of being under the city. Is the only point of rest death? It’s strange. “Acres” again makes us think of burial grounds. But “affliction cannot stay in acres” is not simply a fancy way of saying affliction always moves (like us, almost). Literally, our earthly ground belongs to “contentment.” “Contentment” is not an abstraction appearing more concrete than it is like “Tremendousness” or “Boundlessness.”

We are left with a dilemma. Is this poem a serious treatment of “agony” and “affliction” in themselves? We have to resolve that with a “no.” Otherwise there emerges a too quick moral teaching that there is no such thing as pain, there are only delusions of grandeur. “Agony” and “affliction” have to be taken as bringing forth difficult questions of man’s place in the world: both words seem to be about the struggle of mind. Hence, the irony of “illocality.” You might be completely content with the earthly ground, and there would be no “affliction,” no pain of ignorance. But right next to that is the same “illocality:” we’re not just earthly creatures, we don’t think. The “affliction” is necessitated. The expulsion of pain from the bodily only magnifies its status in our minds.


  1. fascinating elaboration i guess i’m just pedantic because i couldn’t get further than that after a couple reads. I don’t think its over though at all – even the leap to freedom read/felt correct and accurate.

    I just want to add that its interesting that its that same pain that allows us to be certain of our own uniqueness. Isn’t there that saying – an unhappy family is unhappy for its own unique reason.

    For me, Dickinson’s gets really obscure with the her later poems. It gets so hard to interrupting her meaning – so keep mining for the rest of us!

  2. I have a question: Why is there no punctuation mark at the end of the first stanza? It makes me wonder whether laws or vicinity to laws are contentment’s quiet suburb… (In which case, there seems to be a simple dichotomy between the restlessness of agony and the restfulness of contentment.)

    Thank you, Ibrahim, for pointing me to this blog. Dickinson is an old favorite well worth revisiting.

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