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  • Poetic Antagonyms
  • David-Antoine Williams

Bruised are our words and our full thoughtBreaks like dull rain from some rich cloud.

Isaac Rosenberg

My subject is lexical self-opposition in English poetry. I approach it at a time of aggravated national self-opposition, from the viewpoint of a poet who had separated herself from the common life of her society, but like her I am concerned less with passing, outward antagonisms and more with an enduring, inward antagonism. In early 1864, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem (Fr867B) about the experience of holding together a series of thoughts that seem both to resist each other and rebel against the thinker:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind -As if my Brain had split -I tried to match it -Seam by Seam -But could not make them fit -

The thought behind, I strove to joinUnto the thought before -But Sequence ravelled out of Sound -Like Balls -upon a Floor -


There are many ways of discussing the tropes of division in this remarkable poem about a mind divided against itself. Dickinson's distinctive dash, for instance, here performs most ambivalently (and so most fully) its dual role as joiner and divider, separating line from line while also leading from one line to the next, twice dividing a line in two, only to hold its two halves together, and finally joining the end of the poem to nothing, to an absence, signalling not the conclusion of a sequence but an open, indeterminate, perhaps infinite deferral of sequence.

Visually and rhythmically, the dashes perform the breaking and joining that the poem describes, a self-performance which is repeated in the lexis Dickinson uses to describe it. Several constructions using the same vocabulary can describe a mental break: "my mind cleaved," ". . . clove," ". . . was cloven," "I felt a cleft . . . ," and so on. But, although the line "I felt a Cleaving in my Mind" can describe the breaking apart of [End Page 169] thought, it can also describe a joining together of thoughts, because to cleave can mean, as Dickinson's own edition of Noah Webster's An American Dictionary has it, "to hold to . . . to unite or be united," as well as "to split or rive, to open or sever the cohering parts of a body"; a cleaving can be a uniting as well as a severing. There is nothing syntactically or contextually in the phrase "I felt a Cleaving in my Mind" to lead the reader to prefer one sense over the other, and the ambiguity is left uncancelled by the pluperfect tense of the following line: "As if my Brain had split." "Had split" leaves the time of the splitting unsettled in relation to the time of the cleaving—if previous, the "cleaving" could well refer to a joining back of that which had been split. It is not until the third and fourth lines that the reader understands definitely that the poem is contemplating a failing attempt to re-join factious thoughts in full rebellion against the mind's rule.1

In this short poem about splitting and joining, cleaving is the first of several words which are semantically divided against themselves, housing antithetical meanings which cannot seamlessly be made to fit. Each of these words has to do with separating and reuniting, as the verb match, which Webster glosses with a series of opposing and self-opposing definitions: "1. To equal. 2. To show an equal. 3. To oppose as equal . . . 4. To suit . . . 5. To marry; to give in marriage." The anaphoric pronoun "it," the direct object of "match" in the poem, has a grammatically undetermined antecedent. "I tried to match it" can refer either to the "Cleaving," the event or action which the poet has tried to outmatch, overcome, or oppose; or it could refer to the riven "Brain," which the poet tries to match back up, to reunite. Whether the matching is occurring as an act of opposition or of reunion, it happens "Seam by Seam," but in both cases seam, too, takes on self-opposing senses. Webster defines seam only as "The suture or uniting of two edges," but, as its counterpart seamless indicates, the word also...


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