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PAGE FOUR  -  Dashing Genius: 
Emily Dickinson and the Punctuation of Cognition
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Works Cited
    The Brain ­ is wider than the Sky ­
In the often analyzed poem "The Brain ­ is wider than the Sky ­" (P 632), Emily Dickinson assesses this expansive capacity of the brain through comparisons first to natural domains -- the sky and the sea -- and then ultimately to God:
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 ­
At first glance, this poem appears more accessible than much of Dickinson's other work, with the clear organization of three stanzas corresponding to the three comparisons, with the familiar quatrain of four-line stanzas, and with the consistent rhyme pattern. The dash provides the only form of punctuation throughout and points outward from the end of all but one line, as if graphically representing that the breadth of the brain exceeds the margins of the page. In the holograph version, the last word of the first line in each stanza carries over to the following line, resembling the following:
The Brain ­ is wider than the 
Sky ­
 The additional white space emphasizes expansiveness and allows the dash ample room to travel. Accordingly, readers receive more time to forge our own associative connections as our eyes move sideways than downward in search of the next line. Although the same three words "The Brain is" begin each stanza, only in the first stanza does Dickinson intersperse a dash, isolating the brain for our prolonged attention. The speaker pauses after boldly declaring this capitalized Brain, hesitating over how to conceptualize the scope of mental powers before dashing forward with an initial analogy. 
Dickinson's instructions "put them side by side" can only be enacted within the imagination, circumventing the visual cortex of the occipital lobes. But the very fact that we can use our minds to conceive azure skies proves Dickinson's hypothesis: our brain easily holds the object under scrutiny, reminiscent of the Chinese Proverb "Two thirds of what we see is behind our eyes" (Peters 85). As Charles Anderson points out in Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, this trick depends on symbolic representation and results in a magnification of "the value of the consciousness" (265). 
 Dashes frame a troublesome parenthetical comment "­ and You ­" in the fourth line of the first stanza. Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues that whether the pronoun "refer[s] to the reader" or "to some beloved" becomes irrelevant; in the end, the "voracious" brain consumes all "separate and distinct" beings or selves, resulting in stolen autonomy (462). I propose two additional options for yet another slippery pronoun. First, the "You" could be Dickinson herself. And the dashes would indicate an interruption by the brain, by a tiny voice within the mind, interjecting the buried knowledge that the poet also exists -- primarily and intensely -- within internal mental space, rather than in the everyday corporal world. From this perspective, the punctuation device distinguishes the origin of thoughts arising in the constant dialogue between the assumed persona and the pure intelligence. Or as another possibility, the "You" could indicate God in a presumptuous challenge of I contain and even surpass the divine. In this case, the dashes display a perhaps unwanted associative leap, an implication that this nineteenth century Puritan descendent should suppress but cannot, a half-submerged subconscious belief which will become blatant by the third stanza. 
Next, Dickinson measures the brain against the depth of the sea, asserting that the mind is "deeper," because mental powers can absorb and drink in the full beauty of the oceans. Depth implies penetrating concentration and illuminating analysis. Provocatively, Dickinson's theorem that brain size surpasses natural phenomena can also be argued through science; Dr. Richard Restak estimates that the cerebral cortex contains "an estimated 10 billion neurons linked by 1 million billion connections" for a total number of associative possibilities beyond "the number of positively charged particles in the whole known universe" (41). 
In the eighth line, the poet again plays associative games with the dash. She begins with the metaphoric image of the sponge; under traditional syntax, the line might read As Sponges always do, a phrase which preserves the rhythm and adds clarity. But instead, Dickinson immediately juxtaposes sponges with buckets. The result resembles a childish game of word associations or the verbal logic questions of an intelligence test. Triple dashes trigger a quick response from readers, forcing us to follow Dickinson's cognitive link and visualize the conjoined images before we analyze the significance.
This serial punctuation also speeds our reading rate, rushing us forward into the controversial third stanza before we can censor out the developing blasphemy. Emily Dickinson dares to compare the human brain to the "weight" or magnitude of God. And she entices the reader into breaking the taboo ourselves, into following where her mind leads. Dashes detach the phrase "Heft them"  from the tenth line, as if the speaker turns to address us directly and encourage a practical weighing of God versus Mind. With typical extremist flair, Camille Paglia dramatizes the scene as Dickinson "hefts the brain like a shopper picking through cabbages at the market" for weighing on "the makeshift scales of human judgment" opposite the cannibal-shrunk "embalmed head" or God (625). In the eleventh line, Dickinson indicates conflicting voices through a pair of dashes. One part of her consciousness insists that the brain "will differ" from the Holy, but some other part of her mind questions the equation and implies equivalence. With typical Dickinsonian ambivalence, the reader can never be certain if the rational or truth-speaking side argues for difference or sameness. 
The simile of "Syllable" and "Sound" only adds to the confusion. William Sherwood postulates a double meaning: the brain "is inferior to God, for each syllable includes only a fraction of the total range of sound" and yet "the syllable is the instrument by which sound is articulated" so "the mortal soul" must be "more perceptive and more intelligent" (127-28). In her 1991 dissertation, Beatrice Fairfield Jacobson defines "sound" as "undifferentiated aural sensation" in contrast to the "syllable" as "a single unit of sound" with human-assigned "particular meaning" (182-3). Jacobson concludes that the mind contains rather than encompasses God, just as syllables contain a single sound without reflecting the entire range of feasible sounds -- a comparison which validates "the God-like capacity of the mind" (183). The beauty of Emily Dickinson's poetry lies precisely in this multi-shaded complexity. 
Most resembling Jacobson's assessment, I view the third stanza as mutually affirming both the substantial weight of the human mind and the powerful weight of religious questions. God provides the sound, from the natural melody of singing birds and the indecipherable shriek of horrible suffering to the joyous rapture of a cosmic hum. Similarly, the human syllable ranges from the howl of protest and the gasp of terror to the poetic words of comprehension and operatic note of sheer perfection. In an equally cryptic parallel, Dickinson wrote to Mrs. Holland in 1883: ". . . recall that Earth's most graphic transaction is placed within a syllable, nay, even a gaze ­" (L 873). What powerful exchange is contained by a single syllable or single glance? God or Love perhaps. Yes or no. Life or death? Maybe the chosen syllable matters not, but simply the fact that humans can shape sound and create meaning at all. Suzanne Juhasz makes this leap as well: "The mind is like God because it, also, creates -- by thinking. . . . Insight is the change in shape that alters the boundaries which circumscribe and define the mind's space" (96). Once again, the poet leaves her readers to form their own associative response to the riddle. 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Email: liz@grantproposal.com