To tell the Beauty would decrease
To state the Spell demean
There is a syllable-less Sea
Of which it is the sign
My will endeavors for its word
And fails, but entertains
A Rapture as of Legacies –
Of introspective Mines –
— Emily Dickinson
“To tell the Beauty would decrease, to state the Spell demean….” If Emily Dickinson’s opening lines prove bewildering, the rest of her poem offers little clarity. She writes in metaphor- but, more significantly, in mystery. Though this piece is a mere eight lines, it is hard to digest quickly. Dickinson’s esoteric language demands a reader who will “endeavor for its word.” Perhaps it is hardly surprising that a woman who interacted with the world as if from behind a veil for most of her self-contained life would leave behind such an amorphous legacy. But, on the other hand, perhaps if she spoke plainly “the Beauty would decrease.”
Mystical language infuses the very core of this poem – a far cry from the traditional, exacting Calvinist theology Dickinson would have grown up with. But, then again, she never exactly cared about the status quo. The true mysticism Dickinson reveals in this piece extends far beyond her mention of “spells” and “signs.” From both the meaning and also the convoluted nature of her very first lines: “To tell the Beauty would decrease, to state the Spell demean.…” her reader perceives the apophatic thinking fundamental to the piece as a whole, and in Dickinson’s opinion, probably to life. Her strategy is brilliant and well suited to her message: in the obscurity, lies the transcendence.
The “it,” the “Sea,” that Dickinson describes her spirit reaching to comprehend seems almost reminiscent of the speech used in one of the most famous pieces of mystical literature: Plato’s allegory of the cave. In it, one must ascend from the darkness of the cave into the light and, until one does so, one’s comprehensions are limited to only the bare shadows of things. One achieves this transcendence – this rapture as it where – through knowledge and wisdom.
Here is where the similarities between Dickinson’s piece and Plato’s allegory break down. According to Dickinson, knowledge only limits the transcendence of the spirit because the “Sea,” the realm of rapture and paramountcy her spirit feels its absence from and yearns to perceive, is “syllables.” It is not confined. It cannot be limited to words or language, and to try to do so – “to tell the Beauty” or to “state the Spell” would only demean its true nature. Thus, leaving behind the explainable and rational, the spirit attains a state of rapture, and perceiving beauty – which Dickinson so aptly capitalizes – becomes the way, and (dare I say it?) the truth and the life.
— Rachel Campbell ’18
Dickinson, Emily. “To Tell the Beauty Would Decrease.” Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson Archive, Web. www.edickinson.org/editions/2/image_sets/80008.
[For more by Emily Dickinson, her collected poems can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Poems-Emily-Dickinson-Reading/dp/0674018249]