Darkness is a recurring image in literature that evokes a universal unknown, yet is often entrenched in many meanings. A master poet, Emily Dickinson employs darkness as a metaphor many times throughout her poetry. In “We grow accustomed to the dark” (#428) she talks of the “newness” that awaits when we “fit our Vision to the Dark.” As enigmatic and shrouded in mystery as the dark she explores, Dickinson's poetry seems our only door to understanding the recluse. As she wrote to her friend T.W. Higginson on April 15, 1862, “the Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly”(Letters 253). In this musing, she acquiesces to a notion that man remains locked in an internal struggle with himself. This inner conflict is brought to light through a metaphorical darkness that pervades many of her poems. Evidenced by the sheer breadth of her poetry she penned throughout her life, it is clear Dickinson indulged and withdrew often into the inner realm of her own mind. The darkness is an interesting metaphor because it represents a dichotomy between an internal and external. Poem 428 illustrates both as the darkness acts as a barrier against understanding, while at the same time a limitless passage to potential knowledge.
As a poet, Dickinson meticulously fashions her poems. Each word, each capitalization, each rhyme scheme – the dash – is a device carefully calculated and chosen. The dash is rarely reflected on since Dickinson tends to utilize the punctuation in every poem. However, in poem 428, the formatting is essential to the meaning. What do the dashes mean? The punctuation – dash – has the power to immediately interrupt the flow of a sentence. Dashes indicate pauses – ends – places to wait – sometimes nothingness. Nothingness is what the darkness contains. Isn't nothingness an unknown? As we read the poem we pause at every turn, commanded to do so by the dash - indicative of inner conflict. Our minds subconsciously repeat this action after ever pause - every dash. The words it is used on highlight the dark. The dash is used after lines directly referencing darkness itself and its incarnations (line 6's “night,” line 10's “Evenings,” line 11's “Moon,” line 19's “Midnight”) half of the time. In other lines, darkness is not directly referenced, yet evoked through certain associate terms. The power of darkness to hinder understanding and arbitrarily change are used after such words (line 2's “away,” line 4's “bye,” line 11's “sign,” and line 17's “alters”). The darkness also could represent an inner conflict, such as the turmoil “within” (line 12) is exclusively mental. The line is indicative of the inner search for truth. The superfluous use of dashes in this specific line emphasizes the feeling of hopelessness that plagues the search. This trend continues in line 13 as the subject, “the Bravest,” still always have darkness that lies ahead which they must “meet...-erect-” (line 8) and overcome. After doing this, the brave can “see” (line 16) and reach the deeper enlightenment they've sought.
What about the words that lack a dash? These lines emphasize the sworn enemy of darkness- the light. To begin, line 3's “lamp” illuminates the darkness. Light is used often as a metaphor to show knowledge that lies ahead or paths to understanding. Therefore, line 5's “step” and line 20's “straight” lack a dash since they show a direction. In darkness, there exists nothingness and no place to tread. In line 14, “tree” is indicative of light's other meaning - to shed light on something. A realization of a truth may be revealed in light. This connection causes light to be intrinsically linked to wisdom. Thus, in a poem so immersed in emotional darkness, wisdom would void it. As far as line 18's “sight” is concerned, no dash is present because without light a visual cannot be seen and will remain in (a physical and mental) darkness. In these lines without a dash, darkness is not acting as a barrier.