“The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”

In Emily Dickinson’s vocabulary the word brain, mind, self, and soul are often used interchangeably. Dickinson draws distinctions between mind and heart, almost asserting that the mind without the heart is mindless weak and dead, “The Mind lives on the Heart / Life any Parasite-(1-2).” Elsewhere, she affirms, “The Heart is the Capital of the Mind” (1354). However, “brain” can be seen as an essence of glory for being alive. Dickinson’s poetry continually claims a reality for the interior world that is equal to or greater than that of the material world. In poem after poem, she asserts that life’s greatest riches—reality, free will, happiness, self-respect, and creativity, can only be found within.

“The Brain-is wider than the Sky— (623), from 1863, is both a celebration of human consciousness and the ability for the brain to “contain” the world outside within its structure of reference:

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—

The first two stanzas lightheartedly develop two ways to compare and measure first brain and sky, then brain and sea. In both instances the brain is larger, and more voluminous and absorbing. In the final stanza, the poet turns her attention from the visible, natural world, to the transcendent reality of God. Here there’s another method of measurement, “Heft them—Pound for Pound— (10),”she finds that the brain is not greater, but equal to “just the weight of God— (9).” However, if the brain and God were to differ, their only differ would be, “As Syllable from Sound— (12).”

If God is Sound, the all-encompassing, undifferentiated element of which the shaping syllable of a human mind is made, then the brain is greater to God in its density, though unable to exist without God, the source. Nonetheless, what if God is the Syllable and the Brain is Sound? In John 1:1 it says, “In the beginning was the Word.” In this reading, the brain, as the “sound” that evolved from that first syllable, would be an echo of the divine. Thus, there is this syntactic ambiguity here.

Biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff shares that, “Syllables are concocted from sound and contain them; the brain has been created by God, but nonetheless contains Him” (462). Charles Anderson reads the poem as contemplating that nature as a well as God may prevail only in the mind. For him, “The effect of the poem is not to minimize the importance of God, or nature, but to magnify the value of the consciousness” (300). Even between the two critics is this unknowing and this ever seeing syntactic ambiguity towards the poem and its true meaning.

—Melanie Murphy

Bibliography and Further Readings Charles Roberts Anderson. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry; Stairway of Surprise (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.Print); Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston, Mass: Little, Brown, 1960. Print); Sharon Leiter. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work (New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. Print); Cynthia Griffin Wolff. Emily Dickinson (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1988.Print).

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