‘Presentiment is that long Shadow on the Lawn’. Once again, as is so often the case with an Emily Dickinson poem, our attention is immediately arrested by a distinctive and provocative opening line. Something abstract, in this case the idea of presentiment, is given concrete form as an instantly visualised image. But what should we make of ‘Presentiment – is that long Shadow – on the Lawn –’ (to reinstate Dickinson’s trademark dashes)? Below is the poem, along with some notes towards a (tentative) analysis.
Presentiment – is that long Shadow – on the Lawn –
Indicative that Suns go down –
The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness – is about to pass –
A short poem, this. Emily Dickinson’s preferred stanza form was the quatrain, with alternating rhyme, her four-line stanzas vaguely reminiscent of the long oral tradition of the ballad. But an Emily Dickinson poem doesn’t tend to tell a story: it presents an image, or often a series of images, describing a scene or a state of mind.
Here, unusually given Dickinson’s usual stanza form, we get two couplets rather than quatrains, with the near-miss of ‘Lawn’ and ‘down’ settling down into the full rhyme of ‘Grass’ (semantically picking up on ‘Lawn’) and ‘pass’ in the second stanza/couplet. Everything works here – those trademark dashes, the fractured quatrain divided into two couplets, the pararhyme in that opening couplet – to convey the sense of ‘Presentiment’, its shadowy, peripheral aspect, the fact that when we know something is about to happen, or sense something isn’t right, we tend to feel it, on the edge of perception, rather than knowing it in some tangible or empirical way. In this respect, Emily Dickinson’s analysis of human nature is close to D. H. Lawrence’s championing of the ‘blood’ over the ‘brains’: intuition over rationalism.
But it’s probably worth defining the poem’s opening word: ‘presentiment’, a sense of foreboding or a feeling (a spidey-sense, if you will) that something is going to happen. Dickinson’s metaphor likens this feeling to a long shadow on a lawn, in a domestic image that suggests that idea of foreboding is like a shadow because it precedes the event, much as the shadow of something or somebody may come into view before the object itself.
‘Presentiment is that long Shadow on the Lawn’ is a fine example of Emily Dickinson’s ability to take the abstract and give it concrete form, leaving us with a vivid visual image for the thing her poem is exploring. It is fitting that she looked to the lawn in this case: the vast majority of her poems were only published after her death, and in her lifetime she was far better known as a gardener than as a poet.
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“Darkness–is about to pass–” leaves me a bit uncomfortable on a first read. Darkness will not merely pass, it was arrive and stay a good long time until the dawn. But then that opening word, presentiment, is a fleeting and intense experience, and so darkness can become that too, not long and drawn out, but a visitation that’s brief and removed with the more positive light of day. Dickinson controls her world view through her intense language and demands we see through her eyes even when we are taken by surprise by altered expectations and understandings.