Emily Dickinson, “I knew that I had gained” (1022)

I knew that I had gained (1022)
Emily Dickinson

I knew that I had gained
And yet I knew not how
By Diminution it was not
But Discipline unto

A Rigor unrelieved
Except by the Content
Another bear its Duplicate
In other Continent.

Comment:

“Discipline unto a rigor unrelieved:” this is a gain? “Rigor” alone sounds painful – if not deadly – if not marking what is already dead. The severity and stiffness of “rigor” make me wonder about “discipline.” Yes, you can be a disciple, a student, of rigor. “But Discipline unto” challenges this. Isn’t an art or skill applied for some relief? Some gain?

“Content” may alleviate the “Rigor.” Does it stem from discipline in the positive (less “rigor”) or negative (“rigor” has disciples) sense? Probably both senses, though that leaves us with the ironic consequence that “gain” depends on near fatal, inhuman severity. Now “content” comes from Latin, meaning “to contain” or “to restrain.” It can mean a state of satisfaction (contentment: restrained desire) or the substance of something. That substance certainly can be intellectual. If so, “content” may be the result of discipline. Intellectual labors call forth what is universal. Perhaps our discipline helps another gain elsewhere.

Continent’s etymology may be that of its adjective use. In which case, it is the same as “content:” to contain, restrain. If the only reaction to “a Rigor unrelieved” is restraint, one must wonder about the “gain.” Is there nothing intellectual in the poem? Is there only pain? One could even say the second stanza is a glimpse of something like the afterlife, where “other” is the speaker imagining her strength and applying it to her situation.

A final consideration: “By Diminution it was not.” Maybe “Diminution” alone is no gain. But I wonder what it takes for both faith and reason to work well in our lives. We do need some lessening of toil, pain. “Bear” is the key: not so much burdened, but productive.

3 Comments

  1. This is a tough nut to crack. I don’t think i can delve very deep into it but here are some of my initial thoughts:

    I’m curious what kinds of (other)gains exists that are from “diminishing” returns(or tangible something). The only thing i can think of is wisdom, because that is the stripping away at the superfluous to get to the essential ingredient. A knowledgable person may have a lot of facts but a wise person knows what is worth sharing and what extra. So its to direct wisdom she is receiving, if you buy my argument.
    Rigor/ Discipline all have cold connotations for me as well – evoking painful struggles. Perhaps the writing process itself. If i were to be glib i’d argue that its the underlying story.
    Two pennies in – thanks for the analysis.

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