Emily Dickinson, “I’ve seen a Dying Eye” (J547)

I recently began Megan Devine’s It’s OK that You’re Not OK because I want to be of use to a friend struggling with loss. I myself am clueless about loss and worry that I will say the wrong thing or give the wrong impression. When another friend of mine was suffering in the hospital recently, the forced empathy I was given as I described seeing someone breathe only by means of a machine stuck in my head. I don’t think the gentleman who attempted empathy meant badly, but I can imagine how I would have reacted had my nerves been slightly more raw.

Devine’s thesis is that instead of trying to cure grief, we need to work within it. Loss is terrible, and a rational person acknowledges just how terrible it is that the world has forever altered. Devine: “Telling the truth about grief is the only way forward: your loss is exactly as bad as you think it is. And people, try as they might, really are responding to your loss as poorly as you think they are. You aren’t crazy. Something crazy has happened, and you’re responding as any sane person would.”

I do not want to expand too much on Devine’s remark. She’s learned much from experiences I wish no one would ever have to go through. All I want to do is wonder about a poem which concerns losing someone and see if it might have something which can help us cope:

I've seen a Dying Eye (J547)
Emily Dickinson

I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room —
In search of Something — as it seemed —
Then Cloudier become —
And then — obscure with Fog —
And then — be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
'Twere blessed to have seen — 

Dickinson makes us cringe, indulging the grotesque while immense sadness descends. I’ve seen a Dying Eye / Run round and round a Room: she’s there, at the deathbed, watching someone confront the inevitable. She can’t provide any comfort, and the dying desperately seems to want something that can help. The eye roams in search of Something — as it seemed.

To be sure, she lets us enter the poem with grief and sadness. Her own words initially skirt the edge of dark comedy (an eye runs round and round a room?) and she places distance between herself and the dying (“as it seemed”). She doesn’t really know what the dying wants. However, her more skeptical narrator will meet those in the audience with stronger emotions.

The body begins to fade, and she begins crying. Then Cloudier become — / And then — obscure with Fog, ostensibly narrating the dying eye, reflect her being in the room. I take “Cloudier” and “obscure with Fog” not just to be attempts to imagine the perspective of the dying, but her own inability to keep a dry eye while watching someone die.

Finally, the dying eye closes:

And then — be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
‘Twere blessed to have seen —

Dickinson leaves off in wonder and admiration. She didn’t just see a dying eye. She saw someone look for some sort of comfort and resolve themselves. Maybe that someone saw her crying and put on brave airs, but if so, we note those airs mark a turn inward. There’s much talking about death (i.e. this poem), and yet it seems so amazing that mere humans can find something blessed, however small, ultimately within themselves. On this note, Devine speaks of loss as the natural extension of love. We love, others are worth loving, and their loss therefore alters everything, not just our lives but the direction of what is to come.

References

Devine, Megan. It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Sounds True. Kindle Edition.

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