Emily Dickinson, “Fairer through Fading — as the Day” (938)

Bad memories such as regrets don’t strike in a flash of pain and go away. No, they linger, exhausting their holder, and not just because they’re labelled bad. They consistently tease with the notion they secretly hold some good; I twist and turn them over and over wondering if they’re actually beautiful. Dickinson starts her poem below as if someone close to her is dying — Fairer through Fading, she begins — but the second stanza seems to indicate an internal struggle, one that might concern loss in a more general sense:

Fairer through Fading — as the Day (938)
Emily Dickinson

Fairer through Fading — as the Day
Into the Darkness dips away —
Half Her Complexion of the Sun —
Hindering — Haunting — Perishing —

Rallies Her Glow, like a dying Friend —
Teasing with glittering Amend —
Only to aggravate the Dark
Through an expiring — perfect — look —

Fairer through Fading — as the Day / Into the Darkness dips away — she’s looking outside when the sun has almost completely gone down, but remnants of its light streak the sky. Her day looks more beautiful to her this way. At once, I think of someone dying, how we try to think of them in the best light possible. But I also can’t help think of something more everyday, e.g. those nightmare stories many of us have about our jobs. How many feel like a whole workplace works against them, or the customers always harass and abuse them, or nothing quite goes right because devotion to an institution and its standards means nothing compared to making a quick buck and going home. To say this stuff is “stress” makes it sound like its acceptable; to call it “trauma” feels like giving it too much credit, though it certainly is trauma in some cases. Still, we encounter stories of people literally shaken by their workplace daily.

Dickinson takes a dark time and wonders about what she sees, how light affects it. Half Her Complexion of the Sun — / Hindering — Haunting — Perishing — she does not speak of darkness causing hindering and haunting. Only the sun could perish with the onset of darkness, which provokes us to wonder how the sun hinders and haunts.

Right before “perishing,” the sun Rallies Her Glow, like a dying Friend — / Teasing with glittering Amend. It doesn’t just make the darkness seem beautiful, but gives “glittering Amend,” like as if all that was wrong before is truly right. That this rallying is “like a dying Friend” removes the reasoning about dealing with death directly from “Fairer through Fading.” This poem is not about the death of those closest to us, or tragedies which bring us closer to those we did not know. It’s about dealing with our more general sense of pain and loss, how we’re tempted to see a false beauty that can hinder and haunt us.

Some might identify seeing the night sky glitter with trying to resolve one’s day rationally. They might argue that if we just call a spade a spade and not bother with reflection, problems of overthinking can be avoided. However, to take one example, there’s not much overthinking involved when we turn on people close to us while letting others abuse us. This happens fairly regularly, and is a clear signal we let things get out of hand through “Fairer with Fading” — those whose memory doesn’t “fade” are taken for granted. Another example, possibly: the horrible customers at work getting more attention than one’s own mother. Etc. Ultimately, the sun’s dying light results in aggravation of the dark: Only to aggravate the Dark / Through an expiring — perfect — look. What good our day, our bad memories, our regrets, our loss, teased us with makes the dark more powerful, and in doing so, gives us an ever more beautiful, elusive image, “an expiring — perfect — look.”

What are we really looking at? We’re turning our bad experiences into no less than an idol. This is not psychologically healthy behavior, to say the least. I guess you could sum up Dickinson’s teaching this way: not only do the memories we want to keep become fairer through fading, but so do memories we want to go away. We want to hang on to whatever we get in this life, because fundamentally, we want our lives to be fairer through fading.

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