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

Presentiment, Dickinson says. Pre-sentiment, I say. 

A feeling before the feeling. A feeling about the future, an omen (Vendler 23).

A feeling before the feeling. Not quite grammatical, but it can make sense. Like standing as grass in “that long Shadow — on the Lawn.” Darkness will arrive, but I’m not sure how to react. I don’t know what to consider or imagine. 

An older way of speaking, perhaps: how should the body be disposed, what should occupy the soul?

Not simply uncertain, but stuck.

*

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 —

I’m tempted to overthink this poem. I don’t want to say I’ve been afflicted by “presentiment,” that I’m stuck in a shadow. Doing less instead of more. Wondering what I do that isn’t pointless.

There’s a lot of things I don’t want to admit, but there isn’t a fun or fantastic narrative in their place. I might complain about being treated unjustly and I’ll mostly be correct. If anything, I’ll be understating the problems I face.

The shadow disguises itself as patience. I’ll tell myself that the right opportunity has to present itself. 

It’s not untrue. But it doesn’t help build anything, let alone anything good.

*

Dickinson doesn’t make excuses. Or does she? If she’s afflicted by “presentiment,” then she herself is “startled.” She hints how she didn’t take care, didn’t properly prepare for the arrival of darkness.

The Dickinson poem I used to visit for optimism is this one:

What I can do — I will —
Though it be little as a Daffodil —
That I cannot — must be
Unknown to possibility —

Growth and flowering are prominent here. We’re not just grass, we’re daffodils, and it almost feels like we can do anything. “Cannot — must be / Unknown to possibility.” More immediate for us, the game of blowing on a dead daffodil, spreading the seeds, making a wish.

Daffodils grow and get startled, just like grass. Why are we limited to grass in this poem?

*

A thought. In any given situation in our lives, when we’re suffering from the bad and need something good, the good we need and the bad afflicting us are not proportional. There isn’t an equal amount of good to counter an equal amount of bad. To go further: there can never be an equal amount of good to make up for an equal amount of bad, because injustice isn’t remedied by good things happening.

Regarding this disproportion, it makes sense to characterize us as “startled grass” instead of striving daffodils. There is a sense in which we have to be passive. We can’t just imagine an overwhelming good solving all problems unless we’re crazy. The bad has to be identified and addressed.

This is the shadow, the denial. What I imagine patience. It is, cruelly enough, actually patience. There’s work to be done, but it isn’t clear what it is.

References

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 23.

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