Emily Dickinson, “Your thoughts don’t have words every day” (1452)

Thanks to Adam Cooper – would not have seen this otherwise

Your thoughts don’t have words every day (1452)
Emily Dickinson

Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency

Comment:

“Your thoughts don’t have words every day” lends itself to two readings because of the very next sentence, “They come a single time.” What comes a single time? Thoughts which have words accompanying them? A plausible reading, as it initially seems rare thoughts so easily find appropriate words.

Thoughts with precise wording are “like signal esoteric sips of the communion wine.” They are singular but holding something secretive. Divine, they do not stay external to us. Brought inside, they make another manifest. It is like truly hearing the Word. One’s life can be transformed in an instant.

All is well and good, no? Thoughts with words are rare but beautiful occurrences, if not only one occurrence. They feel “native,” making life “so easy so to be.” The “price” and “infrequency” of such an experience should be self-evident.

Yet Dickinson’s speaker insists that it is not self-evident. It is, in fact, beyond our comprehension. Thoughts which have the right words may contain a mystery, but are a still larger mystery themselves. They may point to the price of revelation. To be blessed with an immediately useable thought is a divine burden; one’s life finds itself subject to it.

However, the question on my mind: are immediately articulated thoughts actually a product of thinking?

Let’s start over again. This time, “your thoughts don’t have words every day” refers to that which is not yet or can’t be properly spoken. Maybe there are inchoate thoughts, more intuition and emotion than proposition. Maybe there are thoughts, on the other end of the spectrum, which are fully formed, transcending us, leaving us with only partial comprehension. Either way, such thoughts fuel something eventually more articulate, and the interesting thing is their singularity prior to our verbiage. Most days we have too many words in our head. To really think, to struggle with thinking, is unique. Given the emphasis on this happening once, I wonder if Dickinson is speaking of thinking itself as rebirth.

On my second reading, the poem stays radical. “Like signal esoteric sips / Of the communion Wine” – before, thoughts had words and the only problem was within the words. Now the problem is that of the self. We are talking about thoughts which stand on their own, prior or beyond words. To “sip” of them, to be in communion with them, is to try to ingest the self to understand it. It’s a grotesque image, but not coincidentally the problem of self-knowledge. You try to know yourself and all you get are images of yourself, images that might be best realized in other people. It looks like, on this reading, the overtones of divinity are emblematic of a power beyond us, within us, and not at all purposive. If anything, we’re pulling ourselves apart in different directions.

How does this feel “native,” though? How could it be “so easy so to be?” I don’t think we have to throw this reading out because there isn’t enough of a struggle on the speaker’s part. Nor do we have to say, in the tritest of fashions, that some struggles are perfectly natural.  Rather, the emphasis falls to “while you taste” – our deepest struggle is, for a time, like a drug. Contemplating images of yourself could lend itself to thinking you relate to everybody when you really relate to nobody. The feeling of having a serious thought apart from speaking is not characteristic of true thinking. One does have to assert oneself and face the consequences of that self-assertion.

Whether we speak of thoughts that find articulation immediately or thoughts which stand apart from speech, there is a price and rarity attached to both. That price and rarity is beyond our comprehension either because of revelation, or because our truest thinking exists in a vacuum where it cannot properly be called thinking. I should go further at this point and say this: Dickinson is not really talking about God with “communion wine.” She simply means the instances where we think we’ve had our “Eureka!” moment, where we can explain ourselves perfectly. With that in mind, the problem of “revelation” should actually merge with that of pre-verbal thinking.

Something I’m playing with: you can’t merge the problem of speaking properly (i.e. “I know how we can always be articulate and truthful”) with the problem of thinking prior to speech (i.e. “I have a theory about how we form our thoughts and how they come to be spoken”). United, we’re talking about human reason. It looks like there should be merger: reason can articulate things! Thinking happens, and it makes itself manifest in speech! – That’s about all the unity one can get. The obstacle to any greater unity is that thoughts don’t have words every day. What they are in essence is unclear, and thus they have a radical character in our everyday lives. They’re almost not of this world. –