Emily Dickinson, “Not so the infinite Relations” (1040)

Afflicted, you will sigh, eventually. Not that you’re not angry, or refusing to fight; not that you’re defeated or fatally disappointed. It will be just one of those times, an exception to your normal behavior, a time when you simply want to breathe for an extra moment.

At that time, your sigh takes on a certain poetry. About the last two lines of this short Dickinson poem are most definitely a sigh, a wish that the world was a different place entirely. There seems to be another realm, one much better than this one: On High / Affliction but a Speculation — And Woe / A Fallacy, a Figment, We Knew —

Not so the infinite Relations (1040)
Emily Dickinson

Not so the infinite Relations -- Below
Division is Adhesion’s forfeit -- On High
Affliction but a Speculation -- And Woe
A Fallacy, a Figment, We knew --

A later time, another place, On High, we feel Affliction but a Speculation. The only pain can be imagined. Woe, A Fallacy, a Figment, We knew. These lines sound like a vision of Heaven. Our pain can only be guessed at, as it was something we once knew, but maybe are forgetting.

Ay, there’s the rub. We sigh, wishing for a better place. What exactly have we wished for? Heaven depends on our pain, and if it does not depend on our pain, then it erases us. Affliction but a Speculation destroys our experience; Fallacies and Figments are what we know on this Earth. Wishing for a painless realm is crazy.

Yet we need to do it. Those of us afflicted need to fight the pain to survive. Feeling better is not just a matter of indulging, as we try to feel happier so we can act better. We create a vision of a painless realm to motivate ourselves.

That, I think, helps explain the first two lines of this extended sigh. Not so the infinite Relations — Below / Division is Adhesion’s forfeit. Here we are, below, defined by division. True unity eludes us, infinite Relations are impossible. What is Dickinson speaking about? Does she mean by “affliction” and “woe” that people don’t stick together, hurting each other? That our vision of Heaven involves our forgetting the harm done unto us, and in a way forgetting ourselves?

Even though her language in the first two lines implies man as a social animal (“Relations,” “Adhesion”), I am tempted to think this more an individual declaration. Here’s a paraphrase of the poem I’m playing with: I do not have the power to relate to this entire world, as that would require infinite capacities. I must accept that I am a part of the world, even divided within myself. Sometimes, I need to learn to relate to my own pain, my inner divisions. However, the very willpower I need to accept my partiality, to overcome harmful divisions, stems from concepts that don’t make a lot of sense. The more I want my pain to go away — which I should want — the more I might be selling my experience short. The more I insist on forgetting my pain, the more I forget myself entirely.

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