Study Guide

The Brain—is wider than the Sky— Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Regular rhyme scheme aside, Dickinson doesn't get too crazy with the sound games in this poem. (For more on the rhymes, check out "Form and Meter.") She does slip in some pretty slick assonance in the first stanza, though. Check out what she does with the long I-sound. We'll bold the places where the sound repeats, and you read it out-loud:

    The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

    For—put them side by side—

    The one the other will contain

    With ease—and You—beside—

(1-4)

    So, even though all these other words with long I-sound necessarily fit into the rhyme scheme, Dickinson knits the opening stanza neatly together by weaving the sound through. She even gives us a near rhyme "wider" and an inner rhyme with the repetition of "side" in line 2.

    We've got a couple other minor sound games in the poem as well. For example, "The Brain is deeper than the sea—"
(5) hits us up with some more assonance, and "As Syllable from Sound" (12) caps the poem off with some good old fashioned alliteration.

    So even though Dickinson doesn't get too elaborate with the sound games in this one, she definitely makes the poetic devices work for her, using them to weave together a cohesive and sonically pleasing poem. In other words, this poem feels whole and is just easy to listen to.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Ha. Fooled you. This poem has no title. Sorry to disappoint, dear Shmoopers.

    Actually, none of Dickinson's poems have titles. One reason is that she never intended to publish most of them. This is not to say that she never intended for them to be read: she shared some of her poems with her family and with a publisher named Thomas Wentworth Higginson. But she didn't expect to see them in books. For some reason, nowadays we can't stand things without titles, so publishers usually title the poem with the first line. In other publications, each poem is given a number. In case you're curious, this little ditty clocks in at #126.

  • Setting

    A Surreal Dimension

    The poem doesn't take place in a specific setting, but it does manage to put us in a pretty surreal space. It's kind of like the whole thing takes place in some kind of Salvador Dalí designed alternate dimension.

    Get ready, this is going to be kind of weird.

    When we hear lines like "The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
," (1) we imagine a brain floating in an infinite blue sky, into which it gradually expands and eventually totally merges with. And when we're told that "The Brain is deeper than the sea—
," (5) we imagine the brain floating above an unfathomably deep sea. It plunges into the sea's depths, and suddenly there's a whirlpool as the brain absorbs the bright blue water.

    In the end, we see the brain in the midst of a swirl of sea and sky as it's measured against the "weight of God," which is the raw sound or the wind and the waves.

    Hey, we told you it would be weird.

  • Speaker

    Ms. Dickinson, Is That You?

    The speaker of the poem doesn't tell us a lot about herself. But—and this is a big but—we can tell a lot about her general philosophy through this poem.

    One thing we know for sure is that she's got mad respect for the human mind. How do we know this? Well, the point of the whole poem is how awesome the brain is, so it's kind of a given. By saying that our brains are "wider than the Sky" and "deeper than the Sea" the speaker is proudly declaring the power of the human intellect (1-5).

    The speaker seems to think that the human brain is so awesome that it even rivals the power of God himself. She even goes so far as to say that they only differ "As Syllable from Sound" (3.12). We interpret this to mean that the speaker thinks of the human intellect as something that's shaped and refined, while God is something raw and unformed. Many religious conservatives in Dickinson's day and ours might have a problem with statements like this. Is the speaker challenging the notion that God is a conscious force? If so, then she's a gal with radically different opinions than a lot of folks in Dickinson's day.

    Dickinson herself is known for being kind of a religious rebel, so we might just be on the right track with this analysis of her speaker. And who knows—maybe we can just come right out and say that ol' Em herself is the speaker. What do you think, Shmoopers?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    This poem's a total walk in the park. Some folks have even said that it's one of the easiest Dickinson poems to understand.

  • Calling Card

    Capitals and Dashes

    This poem shows off all of Emily Dickinson usual quirks.

    For one, you've got her idiosyncratic use of capitalization, which basically means that she chose to capitalize whatever words she wanted, whenever she wanted. Take the first line for instance: "The Brain—is wider than the Sky— " (1). Both "Brain" and "Sky" are capitalized even though they aren't proper nouns.

    Why would Dickinson break the rules of English with such flagrant disregard? It's anybody's guess. But to us Shmoopers, the capitalization here—and in many of her other poems—helps to really emphasize the chosen words (and therefore their connotations and themes). It also seems to heighten the words in a way. It accentuates the fact, for example, that we're not just talking about one brain here; we're talking about every human brain—and beyond that, the human capacity for thought. Yeah, that seems worth a capital letter to us.

    Dash It

    We've also got Dickinson's free use of the long dash in this poem. If you've read any of Dickinson's other poems, you've seen what a big fan this lady is of the long dash. It's kind of interesting in this poem in particular, because she has created something with such a perfectly manicured meter (check "Form and Meter" for more), but then she chooses to chop it all up with these dashes everywhere.

    Who knows why she'd do such a thing. To us, it helps to accentuate certain parts of the poem. For example, when we read lines like "For—hold them—Blue to Blue—"
each portion of the line seems to really stand out. It's like we're being asked to truly consider each grouping of words, and we just can't help but do what we're told.

  • Form and Meter

    Yay for Quatrains

    That Emily Dickinson sure knew how to whip out a tidy little poem. This one is yet another great example of just how carefully crafted her poetry is. "The Brain—is wider than the Sky—" is divided into three neat, four line stanzas. If you want to sound all smart and stuff, you can call these stanzas quatrains, because of the whole four line thing.

    Iambic Spectacular

    The meter of the poem is totally consistent, too. For starters, the whole poem is iambic, meaning that it's divided up into... well... iambs. An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. Below is an example from the first line. Read it out loud, accenting the syllable in bold, and you'll get the picture.

    The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
 (1)

    Gotta love those iambs. The singsong rhythm propels us forward and takes us through the poem. Notice that the line above is divided up into four iambs, earning this meter the name of iambic tetrameter (because tetra- means four, y'all). But wait, does the next line do the same thing?

    For—put them side by side—
 (2)

    Nope, not exactly. In this line, we've only got three iambs. The three iamb thing earns this meter the title of iambic trimeter. Yeah, because tri- means three. If you scan through the rest of the poem—which we highly recommend for sheer enjoyment factor—you'll find that the entire thing alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter from line to line, keeping this little poem in a neat and tidy package.

    ABCB (Find Out What it Means to Me)

    The poem also has a well-behaved rhyme scheme that's not throwing any surprises our way. Basically, it's ABCB the whole way through. Let's look at the second stanza as an example.

    The Brain is deeper than the sea—
A
    For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
B
    The one the other will absorb—
C
    As Sponges—Buckets—do—
B (5-8)

    So, there you go. The second and fourth line of each stanza rhyme, and the first and third line um... don't. Notice how Dickinson slips in some extra rhyming words with "Blue to Blue." Yeah, because she's just that cool. Check out the next stanza where she pulls some other sneaky tricks:

    The Brain is just the weight of God—
A
    For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
B
    And they will differ—if they do— C
    As Syllable from Sound—B (9-12)

    Just like in the stanza before, she gets an extra rhyme in there with "Pound for Pound" (3.10), but she also slips in "do" (11), echoing the rhyme scheme from the previous stanza. This lady has all kinds of tricks up her sleeves.

    Power Ballad

    As it turns out, this form—the alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter, coupled with an ABCB rhyme scheme—has a name: ballad meter (a.k.a. common meter). It's an old-school form, traditional for songs, hymns, and stories from long ago. Emily Dickinson loved her some ballad meter, and she uses it to great effect here.

    P.S. For a fun treat, try singing this to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" or "Amazing Grace." You might be surprised by the results.

    Note: Dickinson's heavy use of slashes has a big effect on her rhythm as well. Check out "Calling Card" for more on that.

  • The Brain

    This little ditty only has three stanzas, and at the top of each one the speaker compares—you guessed it—the brain to, well, something else. So, we figure that this lump of grey matter must be of above average importance to the poem. All in all, it represents more than just the literal organ in our skulls, it represents all of human knowledge, as well as our ability to learn and synthesize information.

    Line 1

    The poem kicks off by announcing proudly that "The Brain—is wider than the Sky—." Assuming that the speaker isn't a lunatic with a very poor understanding of anatomy, this is meant metaphorically. It's Brain with a capital B, emphasizing that it represents all those little brains out there.

    More than that, it doesn't just represent the lumps of flesh we call brains, it represents the human intellect that those lumps of flesh mysteriously house. When you think about all that human consciousness out there—like really think about everyone who's alive and all the things they know—it really is immeasurable, which might just make it wider than the sky.

    Line 5

    In the second stanza, the speaker continues her rant on the awesomeness of brains by saying they're "deeper than the Sea." All the same stuff applies here that we said above about the immeasurable human consciousness and all that. Like the sky, the sea seems super deep when you look into it, but when you try to truly look into the depths of your or someone else's mind, it seems impossibly deep as well.

    Line 8

    We just want to point out the neat trick Dickinson pulls here by comparing the brain absorbing knowledge to a sponge absorbing water. Brains look a whole lot like sponges, right? That's it. That's all we've got on this one.

    Line 9

    The speaker saves the biggest boast about the brain till the end, when she says that it's "just the weight of God." We think it's interesting that she chooses to compare the two things in terms of weight specifically.

    Could it be a metaphor for way some people feel weighed down by guilt over what they see as their sinful lives? Could it be talking about the burden of consciousness, that sometimes our over-thinking brains make it harder to be alive? What does your brain tell you?

    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      Nope, no sex in this poem whatsoever. What. So. Ever.