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The Portrayal of Personal Trauma and Its Consequences

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Renowned as one of the creators of the American poetic voice, Emily Dickinson is famous for her unique poetic treatment of the dark subject matter of personal trauma. Although her poems are based on her own reactions to traumatic events, they are still relatable to a wide audience because she omits the actual description of the event, instead focusing on what comes afterwards. Her poetry explores how trauma permanently alters the human psyche. One specific example comes from “The First Day’s Night had come” in Fascicle 15, in which she discusses every mental state that the speaker goes through following a distressing incident.

In this poem, the speaker’s naive attitude towards pain turns progressively darker as she gains an understanding of the situation. Dickinson conveys this tonal shift through her references to time. This can be seen in the first stanza when she writes, “The first Day’s Night had come / And grateful that a thing / so terrible had been endured” (Dickinson 1-3), as the speaker seems to believe that the pain following the unnamed incident will end after just one night. The speaker does not realize that the effects of trauma can be long-lasting, and that there are aftershock-like repercussions that follow the event. This belief continues to the second stanza, when Dickinson writes “And so to mend her  gave me work / Until another Morn” (Dickinson 7-8). Once again, the speaker does not understand that it will take longer than a day to recover from a traumatic event. It is only in the third stanza that the speaker is confronted with the shocking realization that just because the physical event ended does not mean that the pain it that can cause is over. The poem takes on a darker tone when Dickinson writes, “a Day as huge / As Yesterdays in pairs, / Unrolled its horror in my face” (Dickinson 9-11). It is at this moment that the speaker is confronted with reality and this shift is followed by the slow unravelling of her sanity. The speaker exhibits symptoms similar to those of post traumatic stress disorder in the latter half of the piece, which is reflected in the lines “And tho’ ‘tis Years ago that Day / My Brain keeps giggling still” (Dickinson 17-18). At this point in the piece, any hope that the speaker may have had has disappeared and she is trapped reliving the horror of the event years after its occurrence. Similarly, Dickinson uses a shift of tenses to indicate how much has time has passed since the incident. The first three stanzas are told entirely in the past tense, as if the speaker is telling a story from an earlier stage of her life, and in the fourth stanza there is a shift to the present tense in the line “My Brain keeps giggling still” (Dickinson 16). Dickinson continues to write in the present tense in the final stanza, writing “That person that I was / And this One do not feel the same” (Dickinson 18-19), thus indicating that the speaker still suffers from the symptoms of madness in the present day. Dickinson’s allusion to the extreme passage of time indicates how difficult it is to fully recover from trauma, as one must always live with the memory of the event.

Furthermore, the damaging effects of trauma are conveyed through Dickinson’s use of figurative language. In the first stanza, she uses personification to express the speaker’s inability to communicate following the incident in the lines “I told my Soul to sing / She said her Strings were snapt / Her Bow to Atoms blown” (Dickinson 4-5). Her use of the words “snapt” and “to Atoms blown” implies permanent damage, since the “Bow” and “Strings” of the speaker’s “Soul” have come apart completely and can no longer function. Although the speaker will try to “mend” (Dickinson 7) them, there is no guarantee that this will be possible. Dickinson’s depiction of the “Soul” as a “Bow” that the speaker must “mend” also implies that the healing process the occurs after trauma is active rather than passive, since it commands the speaker’s attention and requires her to work in order to heal. Dickinson also personifies the speaker’s mind in this poem, writing, “My Brain begun to laugh” (Dickinson 13) and “My Brain keeps giggling still” (Dickinson 16). By giving the speaker’s brain the ability to laugh, Dickinson is able to highlight her disassociation with her own self as well as her lack of control.

In addition, these lines also allude to the Greek myth of Philomela and Procne. After experiencing a traumatic event, these two sisters were turned into a nightingale and a sparrow, respectively. While the nightingale is known for its song, the sparrow is silent, thus indicating Procne’s loss of speech as a result of extreme pain. Dickinson references this myth in order to elaborate upon the speaker’s feelings of sorrow.

Dickinson is also known for her distinctive use of punctuation in her poetry, specifically her use of dashes. In this poem, the dashes give the effect of emotional resonance as they create pauses in the middle of the narrative, which allow the reader to reflect on the ideas. She uses the dashes to highlight key moments in the piece, often framing words in between two dashes. By focusing on these framed phrases, it is possible to see the degradation of the speaker’s sanity and identity. For example, in the first stanza, she writes that the terrible event “had been endured” (Dickinson 3), which implies a hopeful tone. However, the next framed line has a much more foreboding tone as it describes the “Bow” that was “to Atoms blown” (Dickinson 5). Following the same pattern, the next few phrases that are surrounded by dashes show the speaker’s descent into madness as she describes how her Brain had “begun to laugh” (Dickinson 13), followed by her mumbling “like a fool” (Dickinson 14) all because of “that Day” (Dickinson 15). These lines indicate her loss of control over herself as her “Brain” seems to be acting independently of her desires and she feels mindless because of it. The speaker also cites the day of the event as the cause of this madness. Consequently, the speaker describes how her problem is “within” (Dickinson 17), meaning that her issue is internal, or mental, and cannot be physically fixed. Finally, Dickinson is able to depict the speaker’s dissociation of self as she writes that, “That person that I was / And this One / do not feel the same” (Dickinson 18-19). Dickinson’s emphasis on the fact that the speaker’s past self feels different from her current self stresses the extent to which she was damaged from the event. The speaker’s loss of sanity is also dramatized by Dickinson’s use of a question in the last line, as it is the only time she uses punctuation other than dashes. By ending the poem with the question, “Could it be Madness this” (Dickinson 20), Dickinson creates an unsettling tone as the speaker does even not recognize how dissociated she is and must ask the reader for guidance.

In this poem, Dickinson examines the effect trauma has on the psyche, rather than examining the trauma itself. She accomplishes this by juxtaposing a traditional poetic structure of five stanzas with four lines each with an unconventional syntax that mimics a constantly disrupted stream of consciousness. Each of these stanzas echo a mental stage of the speaker following a traumatic event and show the speaker’s loss of self. At the beginning of the piece, the speaker is hopeful that she can repair the damages that came from the event and return to her former life, while the end of the piece shows a creation of a new identity one that is completely separate from the life that preceded the event.

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