Miss Emily: We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

Suzie Grogan
Suzie Grogan

Suzie Grogan, the writer formerly known as KeatsBabe (sorry, Suzie, I couldn’t resist the Prince reference) has been writing about depression, recovery and art for some time now. You may remember back in October, the promotion of her book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days. I was tickled to be the voice for this Keats-lover’s poem about the Lake Country where that Romantic poet found solace for his soul, most especially because Suzie and I cyber-met when she commented on one of my YouTube poetry readings, Keats’ “To Autumn.”

She’s currently working on a new book entitled Shell Shocked Britain. Frightening how many men were shot by firing squad for “cowardice” when in fact they were suffering very real emotional trauma. I’m looking forward to reading her thoughts and research results on this topic, as well as a related follow-up book that she has already been commissioned to write for 2015.

You can also check out Suzie’s writing blog here, where she’s posted a very inspiring poem about reading by the great poetry master Dr. Seuss. “A Library is a Hospital for the Mind.” Ain’t that the truth!

Suzie also writes for The Terrace, a blog for the counseling and therapy center by the same name in Taunton, Somerset. Earlier this past week she posted a brief discussion of a poem by Emily Dickinson, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” I had almost forgotten about this one, and were it not for Suzie’s slightly more positive spin on it, I would have  kept my darker view, that pain is just something we get used to, something we don’t recover from, but a darkness in which we “grope around” until we are “almost” okay with it. Yeah, I can be that dark in my thoughts sometimes.

Emily dickinson
Emily Dickinson

But Suzie wrote that in this poem she sees the possibility of “hope and facing your fears, meeting challenges and finding a way through.” So I had to take a closer look. Scroll down for the text of the poem, there below my SoundCloud recording. Go ahead–I’ll wait.

Alright now, isn’t there something to the statement that we get used to the dark only “when light is put away?” It’s not just that you cannot get used to the dark until it gets dark; it’s not merely something that you experience passively, but actively; you have to put it away. Am I reading too much into this?

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye 

It’s a deliberate act, isn’t it? More than just an automatic adjustment to the situation, more than the old idea that you don’t know good without bad, or darkness without light, this is a conscious attempt to adjust to darkness, moving the lamp a certain way until your eyes adjust. The first steps may be “uncertain,” but they seem resolved, and we

fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road — erect –

(Emphasis mine) This isn’t chance. This is choice, head held high I think. And it didn’t sink in to me until I was writing this how delightful it is that she called darkness in our brains a “larger” darkness than the darkness of the physical world in the night. How appropriate for the poet who asserted that “The Brain is wider than the sky?” The more I read this the more I think Suzie is right. How interesting that bravery is associated with groping, even at the risk smacking your forehead against a tree in the attempt.

Artistically, this poem stands out for me as very modern (She and Whitman were doing very different, but very new things with American poetry). It’s not just the dashes, but the unusual enjambment of lines for such metered work. “Something in the sight / adjusts itself to midnight.” For poems, like many of hers, that can be sung to the same meter as hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” this is itself a brave move away from lines that stop decisively at the end of phrases.

I could go on and on digesting this lovely poem piece by piece, but I’d like to hear your insights, and do you think her last stanza is a contradiction to what I said about making deliberate choices?

This discussion started with Suzie’s prompt to think about this in terms of how we handle the dark parts of life, depression, sadness, loss. Considering some of my recent posts, you can imagine why this poem spoke so intently to me.


We grow accustomed to the Dark–Emily Dickinson (1830 to 1886)

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye –

A Moment — We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road — erect –

And so of larger — Darkness –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star — come out — within –

The Bravest — grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. John says:

    A. Good reading.

    B. Ok, I can see some of what you and Susie are saying, that there’s a certain positive spin to the poem, though, I don’t know that I see the positiveness until the end. The “We grow accustomed to the dark” line still seems dark and ominous to me … because that’s how I see chronic depression — we have to grow accustomed to in, in order to survive it (which, I suppose is a little positive). But, it still seems more darkish to me. It seems that it is more about learning to navigate your darkness, to keep moving through life, even though it’s dark, rather than just letting the dark consume you.

    To me, it’s more about ‘acceptance’ than hope … acceptance that we can adjust to the darkness, and still find a way through the world, if we’re the bravest, willing to take the risk, even though we might hit the tree….. it’s more about ‘masking’ our self, trying to fit into the rest of the world. Maybe it’s because I’m still not in a good place these days, and hope doesn’t seem to be a word in my vocabulary any longer … but, while I can see what you’re saying, I just am not feeling it in the poem.

    I may have to try a reading, because I think it would be very different … and, as I’ve said on my blog, and I know you’ve said — different doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ … different readings just add new depth and layers of meaning to a poem.

    Sadly, Miss Emily didn’t leave us much in the way of explanation of her poems … and, I think that her poetry is bible-like: one can find in it what one is looking for.


    1. I hope you do decide to do a reading of this one. Like I said, there is room to disagree on this poem. There is a sense in which we adjust, like it says in the title, but I still think she is putting some of her will at work in the middle with some of her word choices. There is this idea of meeting the road “erect.” I suppose that’s what you mean by masking and fitting in, and it’s unclear whether she means it a good thing or simply a practical matter.

      I’m not sure that Emily suffered from clinical depression, and if she did she appears not to have been paralyzed by it. Her work is extensive even if she did remain mostly recluse. Yet there are no stories of her being bed-ridden for long periods of time. She was solitary and private, but apparently very active. Then again, who knows what secrets were kept at Amherst?

      And I agree, ambiguity of the right kind is found a lot in her work. I suppose that sounds like I’m making a judgment, but then again, I guess I am. By ambiguity I mean multiple meanings, rather than obscure ones. But I don’t know that we could go so far as to say that her poems mean whatever we want them to. She did seem far more interested in the questions than in possessing the actual answers.


  2. Thank you so much for including links to both Suzie’s blog and The Terrace’s ‘let’s talk’ – you may see certain similarities of content as Suzie does put up the poetry and quotes posts in between the therapy ones! Poetry really does offer a very real and intense way of making sense of the world, there is nothing else that comes close to really embracing the power of creativity. But these different ways of looking at one poem show how it is possible to interpret and re-interpret a poet’s meaning according to one’s own world view. Great stuff!


    1. Absolutely. I think the work she does, and the work you do are all very important. Glad I could point a few your way! And yes, there is a certain amount of reader response needed for poem to find its meaning. We cannot maybe make poems say complete contradictions of themselves, but we certainly color them with our own experience. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.


  3. slpmartin says:

    After a weekend in the mountains listening to music, it was indeed a pleasure to hear you reading of her poem…but as you know I’m a fan of your readings.


    1. And I of yours, good sir! Glad it was a beautiful weekend.


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