“If pain for peace prepares” Interpreted

On September 11th I posted a poem by Emily Dickinson, If pain for peace prepares. Several people found it pretty impenetrable and let me know in the comments or by email and telephone, so I thought I’d post my interpretation of the poem to see if that helps at all. Please let me know in the comments if you understand it differently. That would make for an interesting discussion. I’ll start by paraphrasing the poem.

If pain for peace prepares
Lo, what “Augustan” years
Our feet await! 

If the experience of pain prepares us for the experience of peace, then in the future a time of peaceful contemplation is awaiting us.

If springs from winter rise,
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?

If winter gives way to spring, then the flowers will be to numerous to count.

If night stands fast — then noon
To gird us for the sun,
What gaze!

If the darkness of the night is preparing our vision so that we can can behold the sun, what a sight it will be…

When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
Noons blaze!

… when our well prepared  eyes behold the light of a thousand suns in a thousand skies.

In other words, I read this poem as a declaration of hope and a call for patience in suffering, as a statement of belief that just as shadows define light, as white space and margins define a page, pain and suffering allow us to fully experience peace and joy.

Dickinson employs a strong rhythm in this poem (without slavishly holding to it ), something she does not always do. In each of the stanzas the first two lines are more or less rhythmic, suggesting movement to me, and the third line consists of two equally stressed syllables (again, without strict adherence).

Da DUM da DUM da DUM
Da DUM da DUM da DUM

(One of the things I love about her is her refusal to allow rhyme or rhythm to force themselves on the words and meaning, thereby not allowing us to be lulled by repetition but surprising us and keeping our attention engaged.)

On a “macro” level, the level I was intending when I chose to post the poem on the anniversary of the worst terrorist strike the United States has ever known, the poem suggests a way of marking the pain, shock and horror of that day with a view to the future – the idea that calm follows a storm, that a field must be plowed and disturbed in order to be planted and produce its fruits, that the pain of childbirth ends with the limitless possibilities of a new life entering the world.

On the individual level, this poem is very encouraging to me. Without too much gooey sentimentality (I don’t take to that very well) it reminds me that my physical, emotional or spiritual pain are limited. That the pain will give way to much more than absence of pain. It will open in the way a beautiful flower opens from a bud to reveal something very different, something wonderful.

Pain and suffering are never the end of the story.

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1 Response

  1. Maxine D says:

    I enjoyed your ‘un-packaging’ of this, thank you. – I had taken a similar slant to the words as you took.
    Praise God that pain and suffering are never the end of the story for those who believe.

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