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Engaging in Ambiguity: Emily Dickinson’s Use of Imagery, Enjambment, and Dashes to Create Multiple Interpretations of Her Poetry

About the Author: Nicole Sclama
Nicole Sclama is a senior English major at the Catholic University of America. Nicole plans to pursue a Ph.D. in English Literature.
By Nicole Sclama | General Essays

Dickinson’s poetry is filled with moments of ambiguous meaning because she focuses on topics that do not have a definitive interpretation, such as lightning, truth, and the infinite. Nevertheless, Dickinson explores these subjects, not for the purpose of seeking an answer, but for the sake of exploring them. It is because these subjects cannot be defined that Dickinson finds their exploration so essential and focuses on them in her poetry. When Dickinson writes on “indescribable” subject matter, it is not only the subject matter itself that creates a lack of certainty, but also the form that Dickinson uses to express these subjects. Dickinson manipulates poetic devices to increase the ambiguity in her poetry in order to parallel the ambiguous and uncertain natures of the subjects about which she writes.

Although Dickinson uses a variety of poetic devices in her poetry, her use of imagery, enjambment, and dashes is particularly interesting when examining her poetry for ambiguity. Using each of these devices, Dickinson increases the uncertainty found in her already ambiguous subjects. By studying each device individually within a specific poem, the relationship between the use of these devices and the uncertain meaning of the poem becomes evident. Dickinson uses the image of lightning in “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” enjambment in “I never hear that one is dead,” and dashes in “The Brain – is wider than the Sky” to undermine certainty in meaning. We see the three devices mentioned—the image of lightning, enjambment, and dashes—used in “Before I got my eye put out,” creating unclear meaning. Dickinson’s choice to create ambiguity in her poetry emphasizes her belief in the importance of the process of discovery, rather than the finding of definitive meaning.

In “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Dickinson uses the image of lightning to create ambiguity by comparing the effects of truth to the effects of lightning:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lighting to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind – (1-8)

Dickinson characterizes truth as lightning, creating the image of frightened children that parallels man’s relationship with an unambiguous truth. Just as the children are terrified by a sudden flash of light across a dark sky, so, too, is man terrified by sudden knowledge of truth. The children are already aware of the existence of lightning, but they are frightened because they do not understand it. They are “eased/with explanation kind,” comforted only when they understand what the lightning is and why it occurs (5-6). The truth must be explained in the same way. For man, sudden knowledge without understanding is “too bright for our infirm Delight” (3). Dickinson uses the image of lightning to show that man cannot process the sudden knowledge of truth because truth must be learned gradually in order to be understood. In this comparison between the children’s relationship with lightning and man’s relationship with truth, Dickinson emphasizes the need for understanding, and she reassures man that he can successfully understand the truth if the process of understanding is gradual.

Dickinson’s use of the image of lightning, however, also equates the truth to a powerful force of nature that is destructive. The children’s understanding of lightning does not change its nature, nor does their understanding hinder the lightning’s ability to destroy. In “Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Rewards of Indirection,” Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller argue that Dickinson “compares the truth’s effect to the brightness and surprise of lightning, but the poem’s analogy undercuts the poem’s instruction: you cannot control truth, lightning tells us; it will always be ‘too bright,’ and it will always ‘surprise’” (537).

Thus, Dickinson’s use of the image of lightning as an analogy for truth creates ambiguous meaning in her poem because it supports contradictory arguments. On the one hand, if the truth is presented gradually, it can be controlled and will no longer terrify man, but, on the other hand, lightning can never be controlled and man will always fear its destructive nature. Dickinson, it seems, is too deliberate to use imagery haphazardly, so she is likely attempting to explain truth through the numerous interpretations of lightning. In “‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant-’: Dickinson’s Poetics of Indirection in Contemporary Poetry,” Farnoosh Fathi notes that Dickinson uses “multiple and ambiguous meanings of tropes to afford, rather than to preclude, the articulation of complex ideas and feelings more richly told slant.” Dickinson purposefully uses complex images and ideas in order to create multiple levels of meaning. The reader’s inability to definitively choose one level of interpretation creates ambiguity both in the image and in the meaning of the poem. By using the ambiguous image of lightning, Dickinson creates a poem in which multiple ideas are considered at the same time. Dickinson is not searching for a definitive answer about truth. Instead, she is determined to explore the ideas associated with truth in her poem.

Similarly, Dickinson uses enjambment to create ambiguity in the first four lines of “I never hear that one is dead”:

I never hear that one is dead

Without the chance of Life

Afresh annihilating me

That mightiest Belief, (1-4) 

The enjambment in this stanza creates a feeling of unity and continuity. Since each line is a continuation of the previous one, the each line adds meaning to what has come before it. From this unity, however, a sense of ambiguity arises. As each line interprets the other lines, many different meanings develop. If the poem is read line by line, the second line clarifies what it means to be dead: When “one is dead,” (1) they no longer have “the chance of Life” (2). However, when the third line is read, it is clear that “Without the chance of Life” is the subject of “annihilating.” Despite the syntactic connection between the second and third lines, the connection between the first and second lines is still present in the reader’s mind due to Dickinson’s use of enjambment. When the fourth line is taken into consideration, more ambiguity develops. If “Without the chance of Life” is the subject of “annihilating,” then what role does “That mightiest Belief” play in the stanza? There seem to be two options: either the fourth line is the subject of “annihilating” or it is explaining “me” as the mightiest belief. Thus, the enjambment that unifies the lines into one thought creates ambiguity in the meaning of the stanza. Each line plays multiple syntactic roles and it is impossible to definitively identify which lines should be read in which ways. Miller correctly concludes that “there is no right answer—just a reasonable sphere of speculation, given the immediate context of the poem and the concerns that reappear in Dickinson's poetry” (80). Dickinson manipulates the enjambment to create multiple meanings in her poem in order to force the reader to hold all possible interpretations in his mind at the same time.

Dickinson’s use of dashes further emphasizes the ambiguity in her poetry. As “The Brain – is wider than the Sky” progresses from stanza to stanza, the dashes create a feeling of uncertainty that makes the meaning of the poem unclear:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –

For – put them side by side –

The one the other will contain

With ease – and You – beside

The Brain is deeper than the sea –

For – hold them – Blue to Blue –

The one the other will absorb –

As Sponges – Buckets – do –

The Brain is just the weight of God –

For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –

And they will differ – if they do –

As Syllable from Sound – (1-12)

In the first stanza, the dashes slow the pace of the poem and give the speaker an uncertain and hesitant voice. It seems the speaker tries to define the brain as a metonym for the self, but the hesitancy formed by the dashes in the first line diminishes the validity of the comparison. The speaker is unsure whether or not comparing the brain to the sky is valid and the dashes increase her uncertainty. The dash in the second line intensifies her uncertainty because she seems to falter as she tries to justify her claim: “For – put them side by side.” The dash in this line emphasizes the speaker’s doubt that her comparison is accurate because she hesitates before her explanation of the comparison. The dash in the fourth line of the stanza isolates “and You,” which casts doubt not only on whether the comparison works but also on whether the speaker can even explain the comparison. Her use of the dash makes “and You” an afterthought, or at least a thought that the speaker is hesitant to include in the definition. This addition seems to be the speaker’s effort to include anything that might be connected to the definition, rather than to find a concise and accurate definition. Throughout the entire stanza, Dickinson’s use of dashes creates a hesitant voice that undermines the speaker’s attempts to define the brain through comparisons.

The dashes in the second stanza show an increase in the confidence level of the speaker while maintaining a sense of doubt and hesitancy. The lack of dashes in the middle of the first line (“The Brain is deeper than the sea – ”) gives a new level of confidence to the speaker’s comparisons. She does not appear to doubt that she has found, if not the perfect definition of the brain, then at least a comparative definition. However, this sense of newfound confidence is lost in the second line (“For – hold them – Blue to Blue –”). Dickinson uses dashes to show the speaker’s rekindled doubt about her own description. The speaker is unsure about her comparison and as soon as she asserts her ability to hold the brain and the sea, she falters again. The speaker does not know how to prove the validity of her claim because the sea cannot be held or contained. In the last line of the stanza (“As Sponges – Buckets – do –”), the dashes show increased hesitancy when the speaker is unable to decide which image is better suited to explaining the brain.

The image of the sponge suggests that either the sea or the brain will absorb the other and that they will unite. When a sponge takes in water, the water becomes part of the sponge until the sponge is forced to release the water. Buckets, however, do not merge with the water they contain. They provide a vessel in which the water resides, but there is never a moment when the water cannot be easily distinguished from the bucket. These images of the sponge and the bucket present two very different interpretations of the relationship between the brain and the sea. The dashes emphasize the ambiguity in this description by adding hesitancy while the images conflict with one another, casting doubt on the reader’s ability to identify a definitive meaning in Dickinson’s poetry.

In the final stanza, Dickinson does not use a dash in the first line which recreates the sense of confidence from the beginning of the second stanza that is not present in the first stanza. Dickinson’s lack of dashes, and thus hesitation, in the first line shows that the speaker has found a definition for the brain: “The Brain is just the weight of God –.” When she attempts to explain her definition, however, her hesitancy returns because she is not sure how to prove that her definition is correct. Neither the brain nor God can be weighed so it is impossible for the speaker to prove her claim that the brain is equal to the “weight of God” (9). In the third line (“And they will differ – if they do –”), her uncertainty shows a marked increase from the first stanza when she uses dashes to isolate and emphasize “if they do.” The speaker pauses in the middle of her explanation of the comparison to qualify herself. She openly admits her uncertainty, thus undermining the confidence she expressed in the first line of the last stanza.

Dickinson uses the three stanzas of this poem to attempt to find a definition for the self, a subject that is both complex and incapable of having an absolute definition. The confidence of the language contrasts with the tone created by Dickinson’s use of dashes. Thus, the reader does not know if the speaker has found a definition of the self or not. The dashes create ambiguity in the meaning of the poem as a whole because the form of the poem contrasts and undermines the words of the poem. Fathi notes that Dickinson uses dashes to create “ambiguity that affords multiple interpretations.” In “The Brain – is wider than the Sky,” Dickinson uses dashes to create ambiguity between what is said and what is meant. There is no definitive meaning in the poem because Dickinson presents the reader with two opposing meanings. The first meaning, that the speaker has found a definition of the self, is seen in the words of the poem. The opposing meaning, that the speaker is unable to find a definition of the self, is clear in the poem’s use of dashes.

Although it is possible to gain meaning from Dickinson’s poetry by examining her use of each device individually, the combination of imagery, enjambment, and dashes creates complex ambiguity in the poem. These devices work together to both illuminate and obscure meaning. While a definitive meaning is not clear, the careful crafting of numerous interpretations is ostensible. In “Before I got my eye put out,” Dickinson uses imagery, enjambment and dashes to highlight the uncertainty of the meaning of the poem:

Before I got my eye put out –

I like as well to see

As other creatures, that have eyes –

And know no other way –

But were it told to me, Today,

That I might have the Sky

For mine, I tell you that my Heart

Would split, for size of me –

The meadows – mine –

All Forests – Stintless stars –

As much of noon, as I could take –

Between my finite eyes –

The Motions of the Dipping Birds –

The Morning’s Amber Road –

For mine – to look at when I liked,

The news would strike me dead –

So safer – guess – with just my soul

Opon the window pane

Where other creatures put their eyes –

Incautious – of the Sun – (1-21)

In the first stanza, Dickinson uses the image of creatures and several dashes to highlight the ambiguity in the poem. The use of “I got” in the first line suggests that the speaker was actively involved in the removal of her own eye. Since she is performing the action, she is in control. Since the speaker only loses one eye, she can see, but only with a limited point of view. In the third line, Dickinson introduces the image of “creatures,” which implies nonhuman animals, and places the speaker in contrast to these creatures. Already the ambiguity in the poem begins to develop. The speaker, when she had two eyes, compares herself to the creatures, saying that she “liked as well to see” (2). However, there is an inherent difference between how humans see the world and how animals see the world, and it is unlikely that Dickinson would ignore this difference. It seems that Dickinson is suggesting a clearer vision after she loses an eye, which supports her frequently repeated idea of seeing the truth slant.

The enjambed third and fourth lines (“As other creatures, that have eyes – /And know no other way”) create further ambiguity because the fourth line’s connection to the rest of the stanza is unclear. Initially, the enjambment connects the fourth line to the third line and describes the creatures. Thus, the creatures know no other way to see. Since animals are supposedly incapable of introspection and thought about the world, they simply accept the world as it is without a desire to gain a deeper understanding of the world. This interpretation supports the contrast between the speaker and the creatures, but does not align with the connection between the speaker before she loses her eye and the creatures. The use of dashes at the end of the first and third lines, however, transforms the second and third lines (“I liked as well to see/As other creature, that have eyes”) into an aside, which connects the fourth line to the first line. Thus, the speaker did not know another way to see the world until after she lost her eye. This reading is in conflict with the initial reading of the first line that gives the speaker control over the loss of her eye, consequently creating further ambiguity in this stanza.

In the second line of the second stanza (“That I might have the Sky”), Dickinson uses the image of the sky because it seems limitless to the human eye. The eye cannot take in the entire sky at once because it is larger than the human eye can see. The sky acts as a metonym for the entire world, and Dickinson uses this image to emphasize man’s inability to comprehend the entire world. The image of the limitless sky directly contradicts the possibility that the speaker could possess the sky at all because the finite cannot contain or possess the infinite. The enjambment between the third and fourth lines (“For mine, I tell you that my Heart/Would split, for size of me”) propels the reader to move quickly from the third line to the fourth. By ending the third line with the positive image of “Heart,” Dickinson does not prepare the reader for the negative consequences inherent in this possession. She uses enjambment to stress the sudden change from positive imagery to negative imagery, which emphasizes the contradiction between what is offered—the possession of the sky—and the impossibility of that offer. The ambiguity arises in this contrast. The offer cannot be accepted, nor can it truly be offered in the first place because it does not exist. Humans can never possess the sky because humans are finite and so can never fully understand the infinite. At the end of the fourth line (“for size of me”), Dickinson emphasizes the finite nature of man in order to contradict the infinite nature of the sky. The confusion about what is possible and what is impossible creates uncertainty in this stanza.

The third stanza uses dashes and images that emphasize the speaker’s wonder and awe of the world. In the first three lines, the speaker lists various aspects of the world that she could theoretically possess: meadows, mountains, forests, and stars. The use of the dash in the first two lines (“The Meadows – mine – /The Mountains – mine”) slows down the pace of the poem and forces the reader to acknowledge each of the images separately. This slower pace creates a sense of awe and wonder. Fathi notes that “Dickinson wants to possess wonder, not certainty,” and the dashes in these two lines succeed in actualizing a feeling of wonder. The dash at the end of the fifth line (“As much of noon, as I could take”), allows the reader to linger on these offered images before the speaker reminds him that she, like all humans, has a finite understanding of the world. Once again, the ambiguity lies in the impossibility of what is being offered. Dickinson proposes the idea of possessing the world and highlights the impossibility at the same time. The reader is torn between accepting what Dickinson offers and accepting the impossibility of that offer.

This contradiction is seen in the image of noon that appears in the fifth line of the stanza. Noon is included with the other infinite images that Dickinson offers and as an intangible concept, it seems limitless. However, noon is a description of a specific moment in time that must come to end and be replaced by the next moment in time. Dickinson’s use of an image that is both infinite and finite increases the ambiguity in the stanza and in the poem as a whole.

The first two lines of the fourth stanza (“The Motions of the Dipping Birds – /The Morning’s Amber Road”) renew the infinite images that have appeared in the previous stanzas. This repetition of infinite images contradicted by finite images creates a sense of confusion in the poem. It becomes uncertain whether Dickinson wants the reader to embrace the fantasy of the infinite or to accept the reality of the finite. The dashes, combined with the lack of enjambment at the beginning of the stanza, emphasize the infinite images by isolating them from each other and from the rest of the stanza. Their isolation allows the reader to dwell on them and recaptures the sense of wonder that was present in the beginning of the previous stanza. However, the enjambment in the third and fourth lines (“For mine – to look at when I like,/The news would strike me dead”) counters the function of the dashes. While the dashes increase the speaker’s wonder, the enjambment functions the same way as it did in the second stanza. The third line seems to be connected to the wonder of the infinite images, but when it is enjambed it is more closely linked with the fourth line. Thus, the enjambment emphasizes the inability of the speaker’s finite understanding to have ownership of these infinite images. The contrast of the speaker’s awe of the infinite images with her knowledge that she cannot possess them fully creates ambiguity about the meaning of the poem. The reader does not know if the speaker should accept infinite images in order to look and marvel at the images whenever she wants or if she should refuse the images in order to preserve her own life.

The beginning of the first line of the fifth stanza (“So safer – guess – with just my soul”) suggests that the speaker has finally come to a conclusion, thus allowing the reader to settle on a decisive meaning for the poem: the speaker has decided to forgo the possession of the infinite. However, the dashes used to isolate “guess” both make the word an aside and emphasize the importance of the word “guess.” The speaker’s determination is undermined, however, by her brief admittance of doubt. Although she only doubts for one word, that one word is emphasized by the dashes and thus taints the certainty of the speaker’s conclusion. The ambiguity of the entire poem is reaffirmed rather than denied in this final stanza. The closing image of the sun only adds to the ambiguity because the reader lingers on this final, infinite image in a stanza in which the speaker declares her intention to turn away from these same images. Dickinson’s use of dashes and images in the last stanza enhances the ambiguity that is prevalent throughout the poem, and Dickinson does not leave the reader with a definitive meaning.

The ambiguity in Dickinson’s poetry creates an opportunity for interpretation by the reader. Miller argues that the reader “may well find that more than one [meaning] supports the context of the poem” and that readers “understand [Dickinson’s poetry] only by finding a comparable scene or experience in their own lives” (81). Each reader will develop his own interpretation of Dickinson’s poetry and will find his own meaning, allowing readers to engage in her poetry as active participants. Dickinson does not preach one definitive meaning to her readers. Rather, as Luxford argues, she both creates ambiguity and attempts to guide the reader through it:

[O]n the one hand it is highly elliptical or evasive; it is possible to argue that the poem is about any number of things. On the other hand, just below the surface lies a wealth of suggestive clues, as if Dickinson were encouragingly pointing toward certain interpretations. (58)

While poetic devices, such as dashes and enjambment, imbue Dickinson’s poetry with ambiguity, the way they interact within a poem acts as a guide for the reader, showing him the multiple meanings that are available within the poem. The dual role of these devices is contradictory, much like their function within the meaning of the poem. Thus, Dickinson creates ambiguity not only through multiple meanings, but also through her use of poetic devices.

Dickinson uses her poetry as a vehicle for her to connect with her reader and to encourage him to engage in his own process of exploration, using Dickinson as his guide. It is clear from her use of ambiguity that her poetry compels the reader to engage and interact with the poem in order to understand the meaning. By engaging the reader in this manner, Dickinson’s poetry affects the reader by beginning to provide an understanding, or at least a path to a better understanding, of the self. This understanding is, as Luxford explains, “recognized on a purely psycho-emotional level, something internal as opposed to external” (54). As the reader continues his internal exploration guided by Dickinson, it is impossible for him to stay separated from the poetry. In order to understand a Dickinson poem, the reader must become an active participant in the poem and, according to Luxford, “insofar as we as readers function as active and necessary participants in the poem’s affective success, we become inscribed in the very text because we experience it” (58). Dickinson creates a circular logic: her poetry affects the reader because the reader is compelled to engage with the poetry, and the reader is compelled to engage with the poetry because he is affected by it. Thus, Dickinson creates an atmosphere of ambiguity in her poetry that prompts the reader to become a participant in her exploration of the self.

By inviting the reader to engage in his own process of discovery through her poetry, Dickinson underscores the importance of the discovery process itself, rather than the result of the process. As Susan Howe explains, what Dickinson was “representing in her writings is a process itself. The interest is in the spirit of execution. The spirit of execution is a spirit of experiment and openness to the order which chance can create” (36). Dickinson was performing her own experiment in which the process of experimenting was more important than the conclusion. Her poetry reflects this view while encouraging the reader to engage in a similar process of experimentation by reading her poems.

By using poetic devices that create an atmosphere of ambiguity in her poetry, Dickinson forces the reader to interpret the meaning of the poem instead of providing him with the meaning herself. The ambiguity in the meaning allows the reader to come to his own conclusion, but he must work to get there. The lack of a definitive meaning in Dickinson’s poetry emphasizes the reader’s participation in the process of understanding and minimizes the importance of the conclusion. Dickinson’s use of imagery, enjambment, and dashes are integral to her creation of ambiguity because they show the numerous possible interpretations and they engage the reader in the process of understanding varied meanings.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

---. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Franklin 1263.

---. “I never hear that one is dead.” Franklin 1325.

---. “The Brain is wider than the Sky.” Franklin 598.

---. “Before I got my eye put out.” Franklin 336.

Fast, Robin Riley and Christine Mack Gordon, eds. Approaches to Teaching Dickinson’s Poetry. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989. Print.

Fathi, Farnoosh. “‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant-’: Dickinson’s Poetics of Indirection in Contemporary Poetry.” Emily Dickinson Journal 17.2 (2008): 77-99. MLA International Bibliography. Web.November 2010.

Howe, Susan. “Experience is the Angled Road.” Emily Dickinson Journal 15.2 (2006): 34-37. Project Muse. Web. November 2010.

Keller, Lynne and Cristanne Miller. “Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Rewards of Indirection.” The New England Quarterly 57.4 (1984): 533-553. JSTOR. Web. November 2010.

Luxford, Dominic. “Sounding the Sublime: The ‘Full Music’ of Dickinson’s Inspiration.” Emily Dickinson Journal 13.1 (2004): 51-75. Project Muse. Web. November 2010.

Miller, Cristanne. “Dickinson’s Language: Interpreting Truth Told Slant.” Fast and Gordon 78-84.