This less-commonly read Dickinson poem describes how appearances can be deceptive and can work as masks to hide one’s anguish. Throughout, she utilizes the poetic structure for which she’s best-known—ballad verse.
A Wounded Deer - leaps highest Emily Dickinson A wounded deer - leaps highest I've heard the hunter tell; 'Tis but the ecstasy of death, And then the brake is still. The smitten rock that gushes, The trampled steel that springs: A cheek is always redder Just where the hectic stings! Mirth is Mail of Anguish, In which its cautious arm Lest anybody spy the blood And, "you're hurt" exclaim
Explore A Wounded Deer—leaps highest
‘A Wounded Deer—leaps highest’ by Emily Dickinson depicts how people and animals hide behind masks of mirth when they are at their weakest or near death.
In the first part of this poem, the speaker begins by describing a fatally wounded deer. The creature jumps in a way that would suggest that it’s as full of life, if not even more energetic, than other members of this species. But soon after, it falls into the brush, dead. The poet moves on, speaking about illness, like tuberculosis, which can give someone’s cheeks a ruddy, red look.
In conclusion, the speaker says, “Mirth is the Mail of Anguish.” Here, by alluding to a knight’s chainmail, the speaker is suggesting that joy and merriment hide “anguish” or sorrow. No one wants to be seen and have others know that they’re “hurt.”
This poem asserts that people hide their sorrow or anguish behind masks of joy. The “mirth” one might appear to feel could be a mask hiding “anguish.” Such is the case with the two examples Dickinson provides. First, the deer that “leaps” highest while near death and the ruddy, red color of the patient’s cheeks, who is dying of tuberculosis.
Throughout this poem, Dickinson engages with themes of appearance vs. reality and death. The poet describes how one might appear most alive when they are closest to death. Such is the case with the deer Dickinson depicts in the first stanza. She concludes the poem by comparing life and death to mirth and anguish. Appearances are sometimes deceptive, and people often take advantage of this fact to hide their weaknesses.
Structure and Form
‘A Wounded Deer—leaps highest’ by Emily Dickinson is a three-stanza poem divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB (a pattern that readers of Dickinson’s poetry should be familiar with). The poet structured her piece according to the pattern traditionally associated with ballads. This means that the poem also follows a specific meter. The lines make use of an alternating pattern of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. The odd-numbered lines are in the former, and the even-numbered lines are in the latter.
Throughout this poem, Dickinson makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: a transition between lines that does occur at a natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the third stanza.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “highest” and “hunter” in lines one and two of the first stanza and “Steel” and “springs” in line two of the second stanza.
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “The” begins lines one and two of the second stanza, and the word “And” begins line four of the first stanza and line four of the third stanza.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “And then the Brake is still” and “The Smitten Rock that gushes.”
A Wounded Deer – leaps highest –
I’ve heard the Hunter tell –
‘Tis but the Ecstasy of death –
And then the Brake is still!
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by using the line that later came to be used as the title: “A Wounded Deer —leaps highest—.” She’s describing an injured deer which, in an effort to escape the pain and perhaps knowledge of how bad the injury is, is leaping the “highest.” The deer gives the rest of its strength right before it falls into the “Brake” or thicket and passes away.
Rather than mourning the loss of its life, the deer uses its last reserves of energy before dying. It does not give in to the sorrow of death instead, it tries to push through, hiding its weakness.
The image of the lively deer (which is a wonderful example of juxtaposition) suggests that not everything is as it seems. If one were to come upon the deer with no knowledge of its fatal wound they’d likely believe that it was at the peak of life. The deer’s final highest leap is a gathering of energy and is described by Dickinson as the “Ecstasy of death.”
The Smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!
In the second stanza, the poet opens with an allusion to Moses and the Bible. She speaks about the “Smitten Rock that gushes,” a reference to a rock the Moses struck and that the Israelites were told to drink from. Water gushed out of the rock and saved the Israelites from dying of dehydration.
The first line is followed by another similarly structured line. The second reads: “The trampled Steel that springs.” Here, she’s describing a “steel,” or a bear trap that, when “trampled” upon springs, closed and took a creature’s life. This is likely, a reference to what happened to the deer in the first stanza.
The final lines of this stanza bring the two things together—the vibrancy of life, represented by water, and the appearance of life (when truly death is near). The “Cheek,” she writes, is “redder,” or more likely looking when “the Hectic stings.” The word “Hectic” is used here to refer to a fever, like as a result of tuberculosis, that comes before death. Just as the deer looked lively before it died, so too does someone who is dying of tuberculosis before they succumbed. The redness of their cheeks might remind another of a healthy, happy person.
Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it Cautious Arm
Lest anybody spy the blood
And, “you’re hurt” exclaim!
In the final four-line stanza, the speaker describes how “mirth,” such as the (seeming) joy the deer demonstrated or the redness of one’s cheeks before death, is the “Mail of Anguish.” It hides the truth of one’s situation. The mirth or joy/merriment is used to conceal the sorrow or reality of one’s life/death. It is compared to the chainmail a knight wears in order to protect their body from fatal wounds.
The speaker concludes the poem by describing why someone would want to hide their sorrow with “Mirth.” One might do so in order to keep another from seeing the “blood” (a symbol of weakness) and exclaiming (so everyone can hear) that “you’re hurt!”
The poem ‘A Wounded Deer—leaps highest’ by Emily Dickinson is about how even when close to death or in the depths of sorrow, people (and even animals, whether they mean to or not) will appear strong and joyful. Such is the case for the deer, which, fatally injured, leaps as though it is full of life.
The poem is a ballad. This means that it uses quatrains that follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB. The poem also makes use of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter (with a few moments where the pattern breaks).
The speaker is someone who has a thoughtful insight into the ways that people disguise their genuine emotions, especially suffering, with a strong or joyful facade. Dickinson’s speaker, who could be the poet herself, understands that people do not want to appear weak and will do what they can to hide that.
The themes are appearance vs. reality and death. The poet makes sure to point out what the dying deer or sick patient looks like right before death, creating a powerful contrast between what the deer’s leaps suggest and what they are truly an indicator of.
The purpose is to highlight the ways that people and animals hide their weaknesses with masks of strength and mirth. In order to escape being taken advantage of or looked down on, one will hide the truth of their situation until it’s no longer avoidable.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Emily Dickinson poems. For example:
- ‘Fame is a bee’ – talks about the transient nature of “fame” by using the metaphor of a “bee.”
- ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’ – a poem about hope. It is depicted through the famous metaphor of a bird.
- ‘The Letter’ – is a sweet love poem. It is told from the perceptive of a love letter.