The mystery of the unspoken in Emily Dickinson's "I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl."

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Jan. 27 2009 11:15 AM

No. 443: "I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl"

Why does Emily Dickinson extol "little duties" in the wake of a catastrophe?

Emily Dickinson's poems have a distinctive interplay of mystery and clarity. Her way of making phrases and sentences, and of stretching them across lines of verse, attains a clarity less like that of a contract or scorecard than the clear meaning of a facial expression, or a hand gesture, or a carriage of the whole body—whether as in the little movements of ordinary life or as in a dance.

"I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl" presents those ordinary, domestic, and personal actions of the bodyas a dutiful surfaceoverlaying a mystery: a time, "some way back," when life delivered an unspecified blow so severe that existence stopped.

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That great loss has left a great, invisible hollow. Despite the absolute emptiness—or because of it, she says—daily actions are performed "precisely" and with "scrupulous exactness" by one who keeps on living after life actually has closed. (Dickinson's poem No. 1732 begins "My life closed twice before its close.") There's a religious overtone to speaking of life as having a "Reward" and an "Errand"—errand, a wonderfully humble little word opening onto a great expanse! But as if to limit that overtone (or to make clear that this feeling is not exactly Christian resignation), the poem also includes a much different vocabulary: "Science" and "Surgery" and "Telescopic Eyes." Audaciously, she declares that the protective veil of the ordinary provides a shield for the sake of Science and Surgery—"not for ours."

The movement of the poem through its taut, suspended phrases merits the adjective "Telescopic": Here is a work of art that artfully, rapidly telescopes between kinds of scale—"the very least" and the "infinite," a shawl on the shoulders and a bomb at the bosom. The central, generative wound remains mysterious, a silence that gives conviction to Dickinson's series of extreme—yet, in their way, understated—assertions that this wound is absolute.

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life's little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—

I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there—I weigh
The time 'twill be till six o'clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my ticking—through—
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman—When the Errand's done
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes
To bear on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—
'Twould start them—
We—could tremble—
But since we got a Bomb—
And held it in our Bosom—
Nay—Hold it—it is calm—

Therefore—we do life's labor—
Though life's Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—

…………................……—Emily Dickinson

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Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be participating in the Poems "Fray" this week. Post your questions and comments on "I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl," and he'll respond and participate. (In the interest of keeping the discussion as rich as possible, please read existing comments before posting your own.) You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.