Emily Dickinson, “Denial — is the only fact” (965)

Denial — is the only fact (965)
Emily Dickinson

Denial — is the only fact
Perceived by the Denied —
Whose Will — a numb significance —
The Day the Heaven died —

And all the Earth strove common round —
Without Delight, or Beam —
What Comfort was it Wisdom — was —
The spoiler of Our Home?


1. Who are “the Denied?” They only perceive one fact: denial. I think it is safe to say the denied are not deniers of themselves. They wanted something and were rejected. They only perceive one fact, then, because they still hope. Only by having some sliver of it, by framing the denial with their supposedly previous expectations, can their vision be narrowed so much.

The denied are in denial about something. Hope can be thought of as a will which is a numb significance. But then Dickinson seems to make an abrupt change in the poem and starts telling a story. We are told of a day the Heaven died. On that day, all of Earth “strove common round without delight or beam.” This has something to do with “Our Home” being spoiled.

2. The story Dickinson tells of Heaven dying and Earth coming together sounds like an apocalypse. Perhaps being denied is the end of the world for the denied. It certainly is the case that one can be shut out of a blessed afterlife for one’s sins. In which case, Hell would be the constant perception of that denial.

Dickinson’s glance at myth reinforces the denied being in denial. They have a hidden, constant hope and they also think themselves the victims of a fundamental injustice. One day, the world will know their pain as time goes on without “delight” or “beam.” Beam implies both enlightenment and hope itself.

3. With “Beam,” then, it makes sense the narrative breaks down. The poem places the death of heaven in the past tense. But heaven didn’t die and the earth didn’t strive common round because of one or some denials. “Beam” shows that trying to deny hope is itself a hope.

The last two lines of the poem are very cryptic, but a summation of where we’ve come might help us figure out on what Dickinson wants us to reflect. Roughly, we’ve said a will that is a numb significance is one explanation, a direct explanation of the denied being in denial. Then there’s a mythical explanation that is a glance at the Last Judgment. Through both explanations, we’ve seen that the denied harbors a silent hope (otherwise the denial wouldn’t sting) and a peculiar conception of justice (everyone can understand being denied, no?). So what does Dickinson want with “Comfort,” “Wisdom,” “Our Home?”

What Comfort was it Wisdom — was —
The spoiler of Our Home?

Wisdom might be thought a comfort, but it was also the ruination of “Our Home.” This is the end of the myth, I think: the world ended because we realized we were denied and we have to live with the “fact” we deserve our denial.

That realization, it goes without saying, isn’t wisdom. It comes from the numb will thinking itself significant, trying to come to terms with what happened. This poem seems to be some kind of meditation on how our reason is clouded by the fact of failure. Not for nothing does Heidegger speak at times about rationality grappling with what is necessary or inevitable – it’s like he wants the messiness of hopes and expectations, things we build with reason, out of our lives. But again, that’s Heidegger, and I don’t need to say much more than that.

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