Emily Dickinson, “Pain – expands the Time” (967)

Pain – expands the Time (967)
Emily Dickinson

Pain — expands the Time —
Ages coil within
The minute Circumference
Of a single Brain —

Pain contracts — the Time —
Occupied with Shot
Gamuts of Eternities
Are as they were not —


Compare the first lines of each stanza. It might be the case “Pain” in the first stanza is causal. It “expands the Time.” “Pain” in the second stanza is acted upon; it “contracts.” Why is this significant?

In the first stanza, the imagery is relentlessly circular. There is coiling within a circumference. Two dimensions don’t spiral out. Like a spring in a watch, ages are compressed tightly. The expansion of pain is that it forces to relive every stupid, awful moment and consider them universally significant.

Second stanza: Pain is not alone in contracting. Time is also getting shorter. “Occupied with Shot” sounds fatal. I just found out that cavalry did use shotguns in the Civil War (h/t Michael Unterberger). I wonder if “shot” can refer to something spherical, though. “Gamuts of Eternities” – not ages, not moments actually lived to some degree. Rather, the variety of principles, punishments and ecstasies. These things “are” – have three dimensions? – “as they were not.”

It would be easy to say the first stanza presents a pain not as relevant as the second. After all, the first sounds unnecessary and the second, with “pain contracts,” creates a situation where one might be grateful for pain. Isn’t pain better than death? But I think it’s safer to say that there are two types of pain constitutive of human experience, even if one may be transcendent. Somehow, these two sorts of pain are one.

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