Life is full of experiences that are forgotten on a daily basis. These are easy to forget, making forgetting something that most people don’t think a lot about. But, as soon as something distressing happens, and one is affected by it long after the incident, being able to forget that thing can become quite critical and distressing. It’s this kind of forgetting that Dickinson is interested in within ‘Knows how to forget!’
Knows how to forget! Emily Dickinson Knows how to forget! But could It teach it? Easiest of Arts, they say When one learn how Dull Hearts have died In the Acquisition Sacrificed for Science Is common, though, now — I went to School But was not wiser Globe did not teach it Nor Logarithm Show "How to forget"! Say — some — Philosopher! Ah, to be erudite Enough to know! Is it in a Book? So, I could buy it — Is it like a Planet? Telescopes would know — If it be invention It must have a Patent. Rabbi of the Wise Book Don't you know?
Explore Knows how to forget!
‘Knows how to forget!’ by Emily Dickinson is a poem about how hard it is to forget something painful.
In the first part of the poem, the poet alludes to difficult forgetting can be. She wishes that there was some specific way to forget something emotionally traumatic. But people have worked for centuries and have never found the answer. The poet continues, expressing her wish that there was a book or philosopher who could teach her the art of forgetting.
The main theme of the poem is forgetting, or specifically, how difficult it can be to forget something emotionally traumatic. Some things are easy to forget, like e everyday occurrences and conversations. But other things, like heartbreak or sorrow over a loved one’s death, are far harder. It’s this kind of experience that Dickinson alludes to as she emphasizes the difficulty of forgetting.
Structure and Form
‘Knows how to forget!’ by Emily Dickinson is a six-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines. The lines are all quite short, between four and six words each. The poet does not use a consistent rhyme scheme throughout, but she does show several important end rhymes. For example, “forget” and “it” in stanza one and the use of the word “know” at the ends of multiple stanzas (creating an exact rhyme).
Dickinson uses a few different literary devices in this poem. They include:
- Epistrophe: is the use of the same word or phrase at the end of multiple lines. For example, two, four, five, and six all end with “know.”
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the direct scope of the poem. In this case, the poet alludes to her Christian beliefs and her doubts.
- Metaphor: a comparison to things that does not use either the word “like” or “as.” For example, the poet uses sarcasm and a metaphor when she calls the ability to forget “Easiest of Arts.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off the line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines four and four of stanza one.
Stanzas One and Two
Knows how to forget!
But could It teach it?
Easiest of Arts, they say
When one learn how
Dull Hearts have died
In the Acquisition
Sacrifice for Science
Is common, though, now—
In the first few lines of ‘Knows how to forget!’ by Emily Dickinson, the poet’s speaker considers how difficult it can be to forget something emotionally distressing. In the first stanza, she says that “It” is capable of forgetting and that she wishes “It “could teach her and others the same skill. It’s very unclear what “it” is in these first lines, which will lead to a variety of interpretations.
They say it’s easy to forget, Dickinson adds, but “Dull Hearts have died / In the Acquisition.” People have tried, throughout time, to figure out what it takes to forget something painful and have failed. She depicts someone dying in an effort to forget, perhaps turning to suicide as the only way to forget something traumatic.
Stanzas Three and Four
I—went to School
But was not wiser
Globe did not teach it
Nor Logarithm Show
“How to forget”!
Say some Philosopher!
Ah, to be erudite
Enough to know!
In the third stanza, the speaker notes that although she went to school, she did not learn the art of forgetting. This implies that she wishes she had or that there was someone around her to teach her the art of forgetting today. There was no “Logarithm” to help her at school nor any “Philosopher” who teaches “How to forget”!
The poet is trying to emphasize how there is no practical knowledge on the subject. One can’t sit down with a book and learn how to forget, although she wishes that could be the case.
Stanzas Five and Six
Is it in a Book?
So, I could buy it—
Is it like a Planet?
Telescopes would know—
If it be invention
It must have a Patent—
Rabbi of the Wise Book
Don’t you know?
The fifth and sixth stanzas both contain questions. These are rhetorical questions to which Dickinson does not expect an answer. She uses them in order to emphasize her bafflement further when it comes to forgetting.
She asks if there’s some piece of information about forgetting in a book, and if there is one, she says that she would buy it. She also considers whether forgetting is “like a Planet” or something that one can seek out with a telescope (meaning something that is currently outside human knowledge but can in the future be understood).
The poet ends the poem by directing a few words at “Rabbi of the Wise Book,” meaning Jesus the Rabbi of the New Testament. She asks him, “Don’t you know [how to forget]?” This slight jab at Christianity is common in Dickinson’s verse. Plus, it works well to emphasize her point about forgetting. No one knows, not even Christ.
The message is that although sometimes it’s described as easy, in fact, forgetting emotional distress is very hard. People have tried throughout time to successfully put traumatic thoughts out of their minds, and it’s never worked.
The tone is seeking and confused. The speaker is seeking out answers to her questions, repetitively asking where one could find knowledge about forgetting and coming up short.
The theme of the poem is forgetting, or specifically, how hard it is to forget. There is no knowledge out there on the subject, Dickinson says, so one is left to their own efforts to forget something.
The poem ‘Knows how to forget!’ is about the poet’s exasperation when it comes to trying to forget something. She wishes there was some source of information or someone who could teach her how to forget the things she’d rather not have on her mind.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also read some other Emily Dickinson poems. For example:
- ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain’ – a famous poem that explores death.
- ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’ – a thoughtful poem about nature and a speaker’s encounter with a snake.
- ‘Ah, Moon-and Star!’ – dedicated to a depiction of lovers who are separated.