Before I got my eye put out

by Elouise

Hummingbird Courtship Display.jpeg

How is your sight? What captures your attention? Despite Emily Dickinson’s opening phrase, I don’t think her poem is a lament for lost eyesight. What do you think? My comments follow her poem.

Before I got my eye put out
I liked as well to see –
As other Creatures, that have Eyes
And know no other way –

But were it told to me – Today –
That I might have the sky
For mine – I tell you that my Heart
Would split, for size of me –

The Meadows – mine –
The Mountains – mine –
All Forests – Stintless Stars –
As much of Noon as I could take
Between my finite eyes –

The Motions of the Dipping Birds –
The Morning’s Amber Road –
For mine – to look at when I liked –
The News would strike me dead –

So safer – guess – with just my soul
Upon the Window pane –
Where other Creatures put their eyes –
Incautious – of the Sun –

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Did Dickinson lose an eye? In 1863-64 she consulted a doctor about her poor eyesight. As a result, she received treatment for weak eyes and later seems to have recovered her sight.

Nonetheless, Dickinson begins by assuring us that before she “got her eye put out,” she, like other creatures, fully enjoyed her eyesight. However, she quickly distances herself from creatures that depend upon their eyesight, and hints that she knows another way of seeing.

Instead of telling us directly what she means, she takes us on a ‘what if’ journey. What if someone told her she could recover the eyesight she used to have? That would, she says, be more than she could bear. Not in a negative sense, but in a positive sense. So positive, that this supposedly good news would “split” her heart. Perhaps from the joy of it.

She names several favorite things she would love to see clearly. They includes the “Motions of the Dipping Bird.” Perhaps she has in mind gannets or other predatory seabirds that capture fish underwater. Or the lightning fast ‘dipping’ of male hummingbirds soaring up into the air and catching the sun as they catapult down to impress a watching female. Dickinson’s sense of wonder is palpable. She seems ecstatic at the mere prospect.

Yet abruptly, this ecstatic prospect vanishes into thin air. Just the news of this possibility, not yet reality, would “strike me dead” – and without a full stop she quickly decides it’s probably safer to see with her ‘soul’ than with fully functioning eyes.

After all, if she looks directly at the sun, she might come to harm. Better to have her soul “Upon the Window pane.” Better to look at the sun indirectly, with her soul instead of her eyes. She doesn’t want to risk the danger of being blinded or even struck dead.

For a seemingly fearless poet, this may seem an unexpected ending. Yet Dickinson, in her early 30s when she writes this, already shows signs of being an ‘old soul.’

Dickinson isn’t a novice when it comes to observing life and capturing it indirectly through the eyes of her soul. A small window, not everything. More hints than direct, complete statements.

Dickinson’s writing invites us into a world of truth so powerful that it can only be seen and described indirectly, in small doses. As in other poems, she celebrates the beauty, playfulness, agony and glory of life. Bits and pieces often overlooked in favor of the obviously spectacular, at the risk of losing depth of perspective.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 19 March 2016
Photo found at,
Spatuletail Hummingbird, Male Courtship Display