Permanently Impermanent

Wrecked, solitary, here.

Emily Dickinson


This is a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson. A poem which begins “I felt a Funeral in my Brain”.  In many published versions it is in fact the final verse, but really there is an extra four-line stanza. Either way, there is such beauty in those simple three words, such permanence of the impermanent, that it seemed they deserved a space of their own.

Here’s the poem in full:

I felt a funeral in my brain,
        And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
        That sense was breaking through.

And when they all were seated,
        A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
        My mind was going numb.

And then I heard them lift a box,
        And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead,
        Then space began to toll

As all the heavens were a bell,
        And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
        Wrecked, solitary, here.

And then a plank in reason, broke,
        And I dropped down and down–
And hit a world at every plunge,
        And finished knowing–then–

There is a certain knowledge in Dickinson’s poetry that I love. It comes, as she once wrote, “as a certain slant of light”.

Dickinson’s knowledge stumbles and falters. Little is affirmed; everything sensed.

She says nothing of the real world, perhaps being unable, but what she says of how she perceives that world speaks such volumes that the ear is compelled to bend and hear. Bend and then hear again.

Another favourite I often return to is a poem which opens “It is not death, for I stood up”.

For me at least, this poem epitomises this strange and wonderful reasoning – knowledge that knows only what things aren’t, never reaching the truth of what they are.

The first two lines are though spoken by a child asked by his worried mother what troubles him.

The child troubled by a feeling he has never encountered before and finds no words to describe can only compare it to something of which he similarly has had no experience, but of which his tender years have brought him some tenuous understanding.


It is not death, yet it must, yes must, be something like it.

Dickinson gropes.

She gropes to understand the world and her place within it.

She gropes not just with hands of unsure touch, but in her poetry, eyes, ears, nose and mouth alike all squint, strain, sniff and savour to gain some elusive knowledge, some rare justification for being and feeling.

There is great beauty in her search.

It was not death, for I stood up,
And all the dead lie down;
It was not night, for all the bells
Put out their tongues, for noon.
It was not frost, for on my flesh
I felt siroccos crawl,
Nor fire, for just my marble feet
Could keep a chancel cool.
And yet it tasted like them all;
The figures I have seen
Set orderly, for burial,
Reminded me of mine,
As if my life were shaven
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key;
And I was like midnight, some,
When everything that ticked has stopped,
And space stares, all around,
Or grisly frosts, first autumn morns,
Repeal the beating ground.
But most like chaos,–stopless, cool,
Without a chance or spar,–
Or even a report of land
To justify despair.
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