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No.161: “What mystery pervades a well!” - Dickinson Emily

Dickinson contrasts a man made well with natural sources of water.  Both are unfathomable.  The well is a mystery because of its depth and potential for danger, it is compared variously to “a neighbour in a jar”, a “lid of glass” or the ultimate horror; “an abyss”.   Nature is also unknowable, inexplicable or inscrutable because even those who are closest to it are overwhelmed by its complexity.  Nature is “a stranger yet” - compared to  a “haunted house” or “ghost”.

Words communicate by association; they resonate through suggestion, nuances, innuendo so responders may glean or infer a variety of messages.  The word “abyss” is the explosive one in this poem because of its potential for meaning.  It suggests profound danger – the boundary between ecstasy and horror, between life and death, between heaven and hell.  This could suggest that Dickinson suffers from a phobia (an irrational morbid fear) about water (aqua or hydrophobia)  or enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) later reinforced by the ambiguity of the word “awe”.   On one hand it means awe-inspiring, while conversely it could just as easily be awful - frightening. 

Following two stanzas on man-made sources of water, Dickinson turns to nature for the next four.  Nature appears much more serene and tranquil; the grass shows no sign of fear while the sedge betrays no timidity to stand so close to the sea.   

 

The major paradox is that those who live close to nature are as baffled by it as those who are removed from it.  The closer you get to something, the more difficult it can be to understand it; sometimes you need distance or detachment.  Sometimes you cannot see the forest because the trees are in your way; you need distance to get a new perspective; an overview. 

Scholars who have studied Russia or China claim that the more you learn about them, the less you really comprehend.  As Churchill said of Russia: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

Dickinson, though close to nature, feels that she knows little about it.

This poem starts with an observation of a concrete object – the well and then philosophises in general terms about nature and epistemology - the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, in particular its foundations, scope, and validity.


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