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Dempsey gives a modern interpretation of Emily Dickinson's "We Grow Accustomed to the Dark." He raises uncertainties regarding the meanings of the various images and words, rather than providing clear meanings to clarify the meaning of the poem as a whole. Indeed, this appears to be a requirement with regard to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Her images are vague, arbitrary and highly personal in ways that raise poetry to the art form it deserves to be. The images in this particular poem are no exception, as will be seen by the various interpretations offered by a variety of authors. Especially problematic is the image of "Darkness" that is found throughout the poem, and that appears to be dichotomized with the concept of "Light."
According to Dempsey then, the post-modern reading method applies the content of poetry primarily to the reader rather than the author or the context of the time in which the poem was written. Thus, the meaning of images and ideas in the poem are open to the reader's own interpretation rather than that imposed by the original author.
The main uncertainty connected with Dempsey's interpretation relates to the image of darkness. According to the author, this image signifies death. He substantiates his view by considering the image of light, which in the poem appears to signify life. In this way, the author interprets all images to substantiate his initial interpretation of the dark as death. The "Road" in the second stanza is thus seen as the human journey towards death, and the darkness that is being adjusted to is the concept of one's own death. According to Dempsey, human life is a journey towards death, which is an idea that needs adjustment. Dempsey's final conclusion is then that human life is a process of dying, and that Dickinson's concept of darkness signifies this process, rather than just the event at the end of life.
The one confusion he raised with regard to the plural form of darkness that Dickinson uses in the poem. He never arrives at a satisfactory conclusion for this. Furthermore he raises confusion regarding the exact significance of the "evenings of the brain" in the third stanza. He suggests a tentative meaning towards the end of life, where everything ends, with brain being the seat of life. All these meanings are related to the assumption that darkness is mainly connected with the concept of death and the human journey to come to terms with this event.
While I find Dempsey's interpretation of the poem perfectly valid from the author's point-of-view, I would like to differ on the one central point that he raises. This is however not to invalidate the author's view, but rather to supplement it with an extra dimension to the concept of darkness as considered by Dickinson in her poem. I would suggest that darkness does not signify only death. While in some cases the image does suggest this position, as opposed to light and life, darkness could also signify difficulties encountered in the journey towards death. This assessment would then lend more meaning to the concept of "evenings of the brain." This phrase for me personally calls to mind the idea of the "dark night of the soul," which is the human separation from spiritual fulfillment. This is a kind of death then, but not the physical death suggested by Dempsey. The plural would make sense in terms of difficulties rather than the overall concept of death.
This could further be substantiated by the various forms of darkness offered by Dickinson. There appears to be the darkness on the human journey through life, and then finally the total darkness that can be faced only by the bravest. Thus, while life's difficulties take only the bravest to face them, it is still possible to become used to them, along with the concept of mortality, and still remain at least partially "straight" as Dickinson puts it at the end of her poem. Once the human mind has adjusted itself to the fact and kinds of difficulty encountered on the dying road, life becomes at the very least possible.
Another, more traditional interpretation is offered by Kirkby (40). For her the central idea in the poem is the ability of the mind to adapt. She does not offer any specific conclusion as the significance of the darkness image, but does suggest that Dickinson resists closure and finality. This ties in with Dempsey's view of the frequent hyphens found in her work. These, according to the author, could signify an extended pause to consider what has gone before and what is about to ensue, or it could relate to the continuity that Dickinson appears to assume in life. Life goes on regardless of death, the knowledge of death or indeed any other darknesses that may be part of human life.
While this interpretation does appeal to me, I find that the traditional reading of poetry leaves something to be desired. It does not stimulate for example the same amount of interpretive thought as does the modern interpretation. The traditional on other clarifies images with a certainty that is perhaps more satisfying than the confusion raised by authors such as Dempsey. A further traditional interpretation is offered by Sister Miriam (http://www.spondee.net/JessicaPowers/pagetwo.html). This interpretation is focused mainly on the Christian tradition. While it is focused on the reader's own background and concerns, the interpretation is framed in a certainty that
Still another more traditional interpretation of the poem explains the darkness as the darkness of faith (Sister Miriam http://www.spondee.net/JessicaPowers/pagetwo.html). This is a purely Christian interpretation, where there is no room for the finality of death, and where there is always hope in darkness.
Darkness here could also signify the mystery of the Christian faith. While the author therefore recognizes that the darkness can be a difficult process, she does not connect it with the negative imagery of hardship without purpose or indeed of death as the end of everything. The author's main concern here is thus Dickinson's use of the journey into darkness. For Sister Miriam, this signifies walking into the darkness of faith.
In contrast to Dempsey, this author does not question any of the potentially confusing images in the poem. Indeed, the "neighbor" and the "lamp" so highlighted by Dempsey receive only a passing mention. They are assumed to be central persons in the poem, but their significance is not questioned. Rather the focus remains on the central darkness expounded by Dickinson. Instead, these literal images are directly related to the next two stanzas, which launch into a figurative description of the darkness concept.
The Sister does acknowledge that the darkness is unpleasant. She however places greater spiritual importance on it than do the other two critics. For her, the darkness is the "dark night of the soul," mentioned above in my own interpretation. For her the evenings of the brain signify these. I admit to agreeing on this point. The journey through life is spiritual. While the awareness of death is part of everyday life, I do not believe that this is the central darkness that Dickinson is attempting to grow accustomed to. Dempsey does touch upon the concept of the spirit in relation to the darkness, as he mentions the darkness of the spirit. He however singles out death as a focus for the darkness. Kirkby focuses more on the darkness as painful events in life, with the human mind adapting to this.
Dempsey is correct in stating that Dickinson's poetry requires that her works be read in conjunction rather than as individual pieces. It is impossible to arrive at a clear meaning outside of the context of the rest of her work. On the other hand, this is just what the modern interpreter does, and this is also what Dempsey…[continue]
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