In this highly ambiguous poem, ‘If Ever the Lid Gets off my Head’, Emily Dickinson makes a very clear distinction between her mind and her common sense. She reveals that there is something lively within her mind, just longing to break free and fly away. She also seems to imply that the only reason that her brain has stayed with her, grounded in everyday life, is because her mind has a “lid”. That “lid” is likely her common sense which keeps her from letting loose. This common-sense keeps her at home, doing the daily duties that need to be done. However, she reveals that there is more to her than just her daily duties. This part of her mind that longs to fly away, is the part of Dickinson that she sometimes let’s show within her writing.
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Analysis of If Ever the Lid Gets off my Head
If ever the lid gets off my head
And lets the brain away
The fellow will go where he belonged
Without a hint from me
The first stanza of ‘If Ever the Lid Gets off my Head’ makes it very clear that the speaker feels there is a separation between herself and her brain. There is something different between her soul, and her physical being. She implies that if her brain were given the chance to get away, it would go “where he belonged”. This implies that the speaker does not think her brain belongs inside her own head. Rather, she feels that her brain belongs somewhere else, perhaps in a higher realm than where she exists physically. She calls her brain “the fellow” which also implies a distinction between herself and her brain. It is almost as if her brain functions apart from herself. She has thoughts and feelings which she believes come from a source outside of herself. This is why she describes the brain as being his own “fellow” or separate being with his own ideas and thoughts. In the last line of this stanza, the speaker further suggests that her brain is a different being entirely, when she implies that it would escape from her of its own accord, “without a hint” from her. This reveals the notion that her own brain has ideas of its own that are not from her. Perhaps this is simply referring to the speaker’s subconscious.
And the world – if the world be looking on –
Will see how far from home
It is possible for sense to live
The soul there – all the time.
In this stanza of ‘If Ever the Lid Gets off my Head’, the speaker shifts from focusing on herself as a separate being from her brain, and turns her attention to onlookers. She realizes that she is somewhat of a spectacle to the outside world, and in this stanza, she acknowledges that fact. She says that if the world were “looking on” that it would realize that is was very possible for “sense” or thoughts to exist outside of a human body. Yet, she also specifies that the “soul” would remain within the human body even if the brain were to escape. In this way, the speaker suggests that there are three parts to every human being: a soul, a brain, and a body.
Many philosophers before and after Dickinson have suggested a similar philosophy. Yet, somehow Dickinson was able to capture the essence of this belief in a few short words. ‘If Ever the Lid Gets off my Head’ allows readers to understand what it is to feel the separate parts of one’s self. It reveals the way the mind can have ideas all it’s own, and suggests that those ideas could exist apart from the human body and even apart from the human soul.
Emily Dickinson Background
Upon close examination of Emily Dickinson’s religious influences, it is not surprising that she should write in her poetry of a separation between the physical and the mental. Early on in Dickinson’s life, the majority of the people around her were Puritans, and were involved in the Great Awakening of the 1700s, in which thousands of people professed faith in God and sought to live by puritan ideals. These ideals taught Dickinson that there was indeed a separation between the physical and the spiritual. She was taught that there was that of God in every person. However, she was also taught there was evil and the capacity for evil within every person. Furthermore, she was taught that it was only through faith in Jesus Christ that she could overcome the evil within her soul and fully realize God within her. Dickinson never did fully accept this view of herself in relation to God. She mentions God in many of her other poems, so it is evident that she believed in such a being, but she did not consider herself a convert of the Great Awakening. Instead, she referred to herself as “one of the lingering bad ones” (The Emily Dickinson Museum).
Later on, in Dickinson’s life, transcendentalism surfaced and presented a challenge to the majority Puritan belief. Dickinson seemed to identify with transcendentalism in many ways, and that can explain the nature of this poem. Transcendentalists suggested that God, rather than a separate being, was actually the spirituality of all things on earth. Therefore, every tree and every plant had some of the nature of God. Likewise, every human being had some of the nature of God in him. This belief system suggested that ideas and thoughts and spirituality were all a part of God, and could all exist outside of a physical human body. The major purpose of the transcendentalist “was the union with the Over-Soul which according to Emerson’s Essays, First Series is the “‘great nature in which we rest . . . that Unity within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other’” (Hart). Readers, then, can derive that when Dickinson suggests that her brain would wander out of her head to go “where he belonged” that her brain was seeking the Over-Soul, or the God that the transcendentalists believed existed everywhere and in everything.