A close reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The brain is wider than the sky’: the mind and all that it can take in – and imagine – is far greater than even the vast sky above us. This is the starting point of one of Emily Dickinson’s great meditations on the power of human imagination and comprehension. Before we attempt an analysis, though, here’s a reminder of the poem.
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 —
One of the things which poetry is so good at doing is taking the abstract and rendering it in concrete and tangible terms – in making visible, and visual, what is usually ‘merely’ conceptual. Emily Dickinson deftly does this here, in the arresting opening line of her poem: of course, it’s absurd and literally untrue that the brain is wider than the sky, but if we substitute the more physical word ‘brain’ for the abstract idea of the mind, then we see that this is true. For Gerard Manley Hopkins, the mind had mountains and ‘cliffs of fall’; for Emily Dickinson, his contemporary across the Atlantic (and another poet who would only become well-known and fully published posthumously), the mind is wider than the sky, and deeper than the sea, because these things, whilst vast, have only a physical dimension: it is the mind, which is comparable to ‘the weight of God’, that lends them spiritual breadth and depth, and the mind can range far wider than the skies, and far deeper than the oceans.
Just as the brain is wider than the sky because of the breadth of human imagination, so it is deeper than the sea because it can contain and carry thoughts of all the oceans, much like a sponge soaking up the water in a bucket. (The comparison works especially well: it’s not the exclusive province of the poet, as anyone who’s described a friend with a head for facts as having a brain like a sponge will attest.)
Finally, Dickinson says that there is a link between consciousness and God because ‘The Brain is just the weight of God’. Both human consciousness and the power of God are weightless in one sense: existing apart from the physical universe and yet capable of influencing and affecting the physical world in powerful ways. But if there is a difference between the human mind and the will of God, it is like the difference between a syllable and a sound: a syllable is part of sound, but cannot encompass all that sound is. It’s difficult to know exactly how to interpret this: a barking dog is a sound, but it isn’t a ‘syllable’ in the usual sense. Or another way of analysing this is to say that the word ‘banana’, for instance, is a sound when spoken, but it requires three separate syllables to be voiced. So, we might suggest that Dickinson is making the point that the human mind needs the mind of God to make the miracle that is human consciousness possible in the first place.
Dickinson’s religious belief was a complex thing, though, and it’s possible to offer another interpretation: that she is saying there is no real difference between them. ‘And they will differ — if they do —’: that repeated ‘if’ is quite insistent, and one wants to emphasise the second, italicise it in one’s mind as it were: ‘And if they differ – and it’s a big “if”…’ And to say that a syllable is different from a sound is to split hairs. Perhaps.
If you enjoyed this analysis of ‘The Brain is wider than the Sky’, you might also enjoy our analysis of her classic poem about a fly, her poem about a snake, and her poem about her encounter with Death. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.