It is often helpful to have know when Emily Dickinson’s has touched on a subject in her other writings, when analysing her poems and seeking to establish her meaning. For instance, she declares her view that human consciousness is awe-inspiringly greater than the senses, in a letter (c. 1881) to her friend T.W. Higginson: ‘It is solemn to remember that Vastness – is but the Shadow of the Brain which casts it.’ This poem, written c. 1862, takes for granted that the brain is greater than the physical world and rather explores the relationship between human consciousness and the very nature of God. Can God be greater than one’s comprehension of him? Dickinson says no – the two differ only in small respects.
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside — Humorous and surprising use of the second person.
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets do — The meaning of his line defeats me utterly!
The brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound — ‘Heft’ is an Anglo-Saxon word – used elsewhere in Dickinson’s poetry e..g. ‘There’s a certain Slant of light‘ where it appears as a noun. Here, the core word describes a basic ‘rough and ready’ human activity – and its unexpected use, in a contemplative piece, is not only humorous but also shows a certain casuality towards the divine!
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound — The alliteration helps to lead us into considering the similarities and differences between syllable and sound. One difference is that all syllables are sounds but not all sounds are syllables.A syllable is either part of, or a complete word. We might remember that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1). Also, syllables also convey meaning even when they are not whole words; for instance, poets craft their writing with accented syllables to provide a rhythm that draws out meaning e.g. look at the iambic ‘And they will differ if they do’, which has a very different meaning from any other permutation of accented syllables. However, it is also true that it is not only syllables that can have meaning – non-syllabic sound can, and often does, have meaning too e.g. when conveying pain or suffering. The simile draws out the meaning that the differences between the human mind and God are minute, despite seeming very different.
I hope this commentary and the annotations will help you to develop a sustained critical response to this poem. Do have a look at my Dickinson main page for recurring structural and language features, which appear in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
MY OTHER PAGES ON EMILY DICKINSON’S WORK
Please go to the Dickinson tab for the drop-down menu on her poems A-Z or click on the following:
Get a husband, have some kids, spend all day making social calls? Emily Dickinson would say, "No way, Jose." Flying in the face of what was expected of your average, ordinary 19th century white lady from New England, Dickinson spent most of her 50-plus years hanging out by her lonesome at her house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Oh, actually, she wasn't just hanging out. She was busy writing some of the greatest American poetry ever. No, really—ever.
Amazingly, though Dickinson wrote around 1775 of these bad boys, she published very few poems while she was alive. Was she afraid of rejection? Did she know she was way ahead of her time? Many have speculated, but nobody knows. Though she remained close to her family throughout her life and had several friends whom she corresponded with regularly, Dickinson remains a woman of mystery. One thing's for sure, though: along with likes of Walt Whitman, Dickinson is one of the poets widely credited with creating a truly American voice in poetry.
"The Brain—is wider than the Sky—" is probably one of Dickinson's more popular poems, maybe because it's not quite as cryptic as some of them (though cryptic is fun, too). In it, you'll find some of Emily's favorite themes, like nature, spirituality, and an extreme respect for the power of the human mind. It totally makes sense to us that someone who spent most days in the same house would place so much value on the human brain. For Dickinson, the mind was the window to the great wide world and everything beyond.
No, really, you are.
Sure, you might not score perfectly on every single test you take (um… who does?), but you're a human being with an amazing organ in your skull called a brain. If you don't think your brain's all that amazing, we think you will by the time you get done checking out "The Brain—is wider than the Sky— " by Emily Dickinson.
We love this poem because it reminds us of just how ridiculously awesome the human mind is. Think about it. Our brains have an incredible capacity to learn, analyze, synthesize information, to imagine things they've never seen. Our brains are the things that tell us whom we love, what we desire, and hey, they tell us we're alive in the first place.
If you ask us, that's one amazing lump of flesh, and we're glad Dickinson took the time to remind us of that. (Do you realize you just used your brain to think about your brain? Whoa.)