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Featured Poem: Patience by Emily Dickinson

Written by Rachael Norris, 2nd December 2019

This week's Featured Poem is Patience by Emily Dickinson, chosen by The Reader's Publications Manager, Grace Frame.

It’s not unusual for the lines of Emily Dickinson’s poems to feel rather cropped or cut short. But these lines are even shorter than is usual for her. I’m amazed that you can make a line out of two words, as in the fourth line here! And it is not just that the lines are short; there aren’t many of them either.

This is a poem that makes me think about things that look outwardly tiny and unassuming; things about which we might think ‘there’s nothing much to it’. I am reminded now of the ‘insect’ in the third line, the only physical, concrete ‘thing’ which is named in the poem. But I am also challenged to think about things that look small to me, or – even more challenging – the beings in whom I find it hard to imagine the existence of an inner life.

In what kind of a life might your patience have to be drawn on? My first thought is of situations that necessitate waiting, but I wonder if it is more than that. Looking it up in the dictionary, I find these definitions helpful: patience is ‘the ability to accept delay, trouble or suffering without becoming angry or upset’, ‘the character or habit of mind that enables one to suffer afflictions, provocation or other evil with a calm unruffled temper’. That ‘habit of mind’ is interesting. I get the sense in the poem that this patience that is being spoken of is an enduring thing. It ‘is’.

The poem is also clear that it is about what exists or happens ‘within’. The ‘quiet Outer’ is a curious phrase: outer what? But my eye is also drawn to the connection with ‘the Smile’ in the second to last line. That ‘outer’ expression may be happy, positive or genial, but it may not match the actual feeling of what is going on: the activity here feels ‘futile’, ‘fruitlesser’, and ends with ‘quivering’. I almost feel like the core of this poem is in the lines which describe such futility:

‘an Insect’s futile forces

Infinites – between – ’.

This is surely trying to create a picture for us, and I try to summon this up in my mind. I’ve seen an insect scrabbling around. But have I really stopped to imagine what that insect is attempting to do? What kind of distance might feel infinite to an insect? The width of a room? The height of a tree? Why are they trying to cross this distance – presumably because they need something from the other end, or can only achieve what they need by making this leap?

I am asking myself now what makes the difference between patience and defeat. So much seems packed into that

‘Smile’s exertion

Through the quivering’.

Suddenly I feel moved by the word ‘through’ here. Patience doesn’t look for the end to hurry up. It exists ‘between’ and ‘through’, when the end is impossible to envisage.

When you feel there is nothing you can do to change your situation, remember you are not the only creature who has faced this fate. It may be that no-one around you can see exactly what you are contending with. But in this situation, this poem exists to recognise the bravery of your struggle.

 

Patience

 

Patience – has a quiet Outer –

Patience – Look within –

Is an Insect’s futile forces

Infinites – between –

 

‘Scaping one – against the other

Fruitlesser to fling –

Patience – is the Smile’s exertion

Through the quivering –

 

Emily Dickinson

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