Emily Dickinson, “A face devoid of love or grace” (1711)

With thanks to Temperance Dewar & Margaret Mahoney

A face devoid of love or grace (1711)
Emily Dickinson

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face,
A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances —
First time together thrown.

Comment:

The toughest thing to do in discussing a work of art is articulate the problem it introduces and its relevance. When I first read this poem, I thought it was an elaborate way of saying the speaker wanted to throw a stone at someone’s face.

That is, in essence, the drama of the poem. But it is a bit more complicated than that. “A face devoid of love or grace, / A hateful, hard, successful face” – this is all the speaker’s imagination. Nowhere is any particular physical feature mentioned. More importantly, the whole image depends on a rather curious thesis. Devoid of love or grace? Stoking the fire of one’s own hate? That yields hardness and success.

It looks like the speaker is imagining a face for a particular purpose. The face she wants to throw a stone at is most likely her own. The second part of the poem warrants close attention:

A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances —
First time together thrown.

A stone feels “thoroughly at ease” with the face imagined. In fact, it’s like they were “old acquaintances,” those thrown together who realized how similar their souls were. A friendship might be forged between hate and anger! The drama of the poem, in my view: the speaker is putting on what she thinks is a hateful face to achieve something. She is not entirely comfortable with herself doing this.

But why is it relevant? The drama of the poem can only suggest the larger issue. Margaret made some suggestions that got me thinking if the speaker is trying to get herself to break up with someone. Small faults have to be exaggerated even in more reasonable break ups. While there doesn’t have to be hatred, the whole process is hateful. I think that’s the correct line of thought, but the problem is more general. In life, we have to do hateful, cold things against others. Those things don’t have a “love” or “grace” as regards others, but do have a logic and even a kinship of their own. It’s like there’s a set of rules we work ardently to deny, but at times they assert their necessity, and we wonder what we’ve become. The irony is “first time together thrown:” the speaker knows too much for that to be true.

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