Summary and Analysis of I Felt a Cleaving in My Mind


The aforementioned quote perhaps is the best way to describe the nuances that are involved in analyzing Dickinson’s work. Every word, punctuation even space left is pregnant with deep insight into life.  The poem being discussed in context here is an excellent example of this bearing. Published in 1890, as poem 937 in the collection called “ Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson”, this poem is as relevant now as it was then. Like all her traditional hymns, this too is written in common meter,i.e, alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter. The rhyme scheme here is identical in both the stanzas, ABCB

I Felt a Cleaving in My Mind Analysis

The poem I Felt a Cleaving in My Mind, opens with a shocking statement, the narrator claims that she has felt as if her mind had cleaved. Although the phenomenon is physically impossible, the innuendo here is clear. The narrator seems divided into her own persona. To justify what she is sensing, she further explains how she feels that her brain has “split”. the allusion here is not only to signify the two contradictory state of thoughts that she is passing through, but also to point out the opposition faced by an individual caught between the dual instincts of their brain. The division experienced here is a metaphor for the ambivalence one feels between the left and right hemispheres of their brain. While our logical left brain tries to persuade us into living life on the sidelines, while on the other hand, our creative instincts residing in our right brain urges us to live on the edge. More often than not, an intermediate is reached. But for times when there is no way out, we face a despair similar to what the narrator is facing. All the scattered thoughts that we are unable to recollect and organize result in a helpless disorientation which makes us join ends, trying to make sense out of rejects. Dickinson here uses an imagery of a seamstress, who is trying to “seam” two misfit pieces of clothes together. Often our lives result into such a misfitted patchwork of different shades of ourselves, hanging by the threads. Here, however, the narrator is unable to make these two pieces fit. Such desperation that is perceived in the tone of the narrator is characteristic of anyone going through emotional distress, to which Dickinson was no stranger to. All her life Dickinson has been subject to mental duress and depression. The secluded life she led had all the signs to point out her condition, which when later diagnosed, was found out that she has suffered nervous prostration, a condition which is induced through severe emotional distress.

The way Dickinson explains and expresses the brain, as observed by Barbara Baumgartner in her paper “ Anatomy lessons: Emily Dickinson’s Brain Poems”, that Dickinson makes a deliberate attempt in making the brain the site of distress in order to challenge the common cultural presumptions of feminine emotions and brain logic and thereby avoiding any preconceived notion of gender tendencies.

The brain in Dickinson’s poem creates and sustains soul; the soul, in turn, is a natural growth clearly dependant on the brain”

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  • Stefan Schöberlein ( “Insane in the Membrane: Emily Dickinson Dissecting Brains”)

Dickinson always provides a neutral narrator for her poems, which makes it easier for the readers to adapt them into their perspectives. Here Dickinson provides a concrete household imagery of a seamstress to give foundation to her perspective.

In the second and final stanza, the tone changes from helpless to motivationless, where the narrator’s efforts have reached the height of its vanity. In vain the narrator is trying to “stitch” together with her two incoherent thoughts into one single sensible one, and the process eventually fails. In her poem “ After a great pain, a formal feeling comes…” Dickinson terms a thought called “ quartz contentment”, where she is trying to convey a synesthesia of equating a transparent crystal with a grey stone, in order point out the similarity that lies in a contrast. Here too Dickinson tries to fuse two thoughts, before and after, but unlike before, fails.

This feeble and powerless attitude is indicative of depression which Dickinson underwent. All her poems have hints and indications of this, which however was never correctly diagnosed while she was alive and ultimately caused her death.

“ …how could we not read melancholia, depression or even schizophrenia here, with images of mental anguish and despair so vividly represented”

-Stefan Schöberlein ( “Insane in the Membrane: Emily Dickinson Dissecting Brains”)

Dickinson’s complex metaphor of balls of yarn falling out of sequence and untangling and raveling themselves ends the poem on a cynical yet optimistic note. The disoriented and unsuccessful attempts to solve our ailments often find salvation when we let go of the problem itself. Sometimes not trying to solve something is the best way to solve it. The recurring imagery of seamstress and balls of yarns gives us the perception of life as a tangled mass, hanging by its threads.

The punctuations used in this poem enhance the desperate tone which Dickinson has tried to achieve. The carefully placed dashes (‘-’) at times gives us the sense of urgency and at times relaxes the breathless pace of the poem.

I Felt a Cleaving in My Mind Theme/Central Idea

The theme of the poem revolves around the humane emotion of despair and the calm that is achieved at the end of it. As a victim of depression herself, Dickinson excellently portrays the anguish of a perturbed individual. The disjointed human self always tries to confirm to conjoined ideas and fails in its attempt. Dickinson has conveyed such vanity of our efforts here and tried to enforce the radical notion of being incoherent in order to simplify and ravel our lives. The more we try to force our complications into salvation, the more they deter. So through the subtle art of patience and release, we can achieve more peace in life than we can think of.

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