Emily Dickinson, “Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn” (764)

If you’re reading this, and you’re in high school or college, one of two things is about to happen. On the one hand, perhaps you’re about to hit “Select All,” “Copy,” paste this into a Word document, submit it as your own work, get caught and punished or expelled. There are actually a number of teachers and professors who read this blog because their worst point them my direction. We’re happy to talk to each other about ideas. You might want to join that conversation instead of alienating people who can handle themselves in the world and are willing to help you if you talk to us like the adult you think you are.

Of course, you might not be punished immediately. I know a few who got through school cheating nonstop. I can safely say that unless they can inherit billions, they’re in bad shape. School is about learning how to learn. Fail to do this and things might go well-enough for a bit: you’re hanging with your boys, some of them are in and out of jail, you’ve got drugs and booze and bad music, you’re working here and there. Trust me, you’ve got no idea how hard problems can hit all at once, and when you don’t know, they hit that much harder. Learning how to learn is the only way to stop life from breaking you.

On the other hand, you might be one of those students who is actually trying to learn something. You want to read the big books, write the thoughtful paper, get the praise, grab a mentor, hoard the opportunities, cite professors and articles with authority, establish credibility, become independent. You’re going to master this short poem, unlock its inner truth, and wield it like Thor’s hammer against the ignorant and their 30 pack of Natural Light (or better yet, that 30 pack of Busch that comes in hunting orange). Funny, that. I can safely tell you that some of the best academics I know are completely blind to how the world works. The problem with school at a so-called higher level is that it repeatedly, in hidden, complicated ways, substitutes the pursuit of honor, praise, or respect for wisdom. This need not be as obvious or fatal as Heidegger, who knew his way around the classics and Nietzsche like no one else, and who also embraced Nazism. But I’ll warn you now: once you see the pettiness, you can’t unsee it. All reading, all writing, and almost all learning feels tainted. My hope is that you get a mirror before you hurt someone or spread dysfunction. In a way, that some academics teach pointless classes for the sake of students painting by number renders them harmless; God forbid they were actually inspiring.

I want to approach Dickinson’s short poem defining “Presentiment” with the above in mind. You’ve got a premonition that cheating might result in your worst possible outcome, or that your pursuit of knowledge might be a denial of a more pressing issue. Dickinson brings us right into that feeling of dread, letting us see as she sees:

Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn (764)
Emily Dickinson

Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn —
Indicative that Suns go down —

The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness — is about to pass —

Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn — / Indicative that Suns go down: we watch late the long lawn with longer, creeping shadows. Neither focused on the light, nor on dealing with what’s inside the house, we’re looking down and across, wondering why there’s a touch of fear. Where did our hope go?

It’s like not enough got done this day, like nothing truly fulfilling happened. I think, for those of you who are students, your teachers are apt to forget how pointless everything seems. If you felt convinced of your goals, the adult world and all its associated drinking, sex, money and respect would not be pushing you to cheat or overachieve. I believe you and the Dickinson of this poem share a certain fear, that of getting something—anything—done before time is up.

Dickinson’s poem, though, takes a swift turn. Our eyes start focusing on the grass, and we both identify and do not identify with it. The Notice to the startled Grass / That Darkness — is about to pass. On the one hand, both we and the grass are startled. We knew the day had to come to a close, but like grass, we were perfectly happy soaking up sunlight and not really preparing for the future. Hope was defeated by the mere fact that change came a bit too soon. It was perfectly predictable, but now one can only watch. On the other hand, we’re not grass, as grass does not get “startled.” Grass will be perfectly fine during the night and enjoy the next day. We too can endure, but we have to realize we have a choice and make it the best we can. The “presentiment” has to be used, as there are things we can say, do, and think which make the close of day hopeful.

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