The Past is such a Curious Creature

Emily Dickinson

‘The past is such a Curious creature’ by Emily Dickinson focuses on the past, and personifies it as a female character. The poet’s speaker puts the feeling of one’s past into a few simple, relatable words.

Emily Dickinson

Nationality: America

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

Central Message: The past is important and often difficult to deal with.

Themes: Death

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Empathy

Poetic Form: Ballad

Time Period: 19th Century

Dickinson skillfully depicts the deceptively dangerous nature of the past in this short poem.

Dickinson’s name is known and well-loved in the literary world. Her ability to put intense thought into a few simple words sets her apart from other poets. She thinks in the abstract, and her thoughts are deep.

Thus, her poetry tends to take readers into a deeper realm of thought, one that ponders life and death, the present, and the future. Since all have felt the passing of time, and all have pondered their own pasts, ‘The Past is such a Curious Creature’ allows readers to easily connect with the speaker and thus, with the author herself.

The past is such a curious creature
Emily Dickinson

The past is such a curious creature,To look her in the faceA transport may reward us,Or a disgrace.

Unarmed if any meet her,I charge him, fly!Her rusty ammunitionMight yet reply!
The Past is such a Curious Creature by Emily Dickinson

The Past is such a curious Creature Analysis

Stanza One

The past is such a curious creature
To look her in the face
A transport may reward us
Or a disgrace

The personification of “the past” makes it come alive as a separate being, someone that is alive somewhere, doing something. Though the speaker is not there with “the past” she has seen in a moment in time, and she concludes that it is indeed “a curious creature”. The reader can relate with the speaker in her claim that the past is curious. It is nearly always surprising to a person to experience time and how quickly the present becomes the past. It is for this reason that people continue to express that “time flies” or are amazed upon meeting a little one they have not seen in quite some time. It is almost as if the passing of time is a foreign concept to human beings, though it has always been in effect. The passing of time never ceases to amaze people, and this speaker’s use of personification allows the readers to identify with this very specific feeling, astonishment at the passing of time. The speaker uses the word “curious” to describe the past personified. That word causes the readers to agree with the speaker. When one thinks about the past, it does indeed seem curious.

The use of the word “creature” suggests that the past is something living, but something the speaker is not entirely familiar with. She only knows that it is some sort of creature, and she describes it as nothing other than “curious”. This description allows the readers to immediately identify with the speaker. Then, the speaker takes the reader one step deeper. Now that the speaker has acknowledged the past as a living creature, and a curious one at that, the speaker introduces the reader to the past on a more personal level. At this point in ‘The Past is such a curious Creature’, the speaker is able “to look her [the past] in the face”. Most people come face to face with their past at some point. The speaker here has come to face her past. She does not know whether she will find a “reward” or “disgrace”, but she knows that she has come to a point in her life when she will look her past right in the face.

Stanza Two

Unarmed if any meet her
I charge him, fly
Her rusty ammunition
Might yet reply

The speaker communicates that the past is not armed. It is not there to launch an attack. Rather, she is “unarmed” any time that anyone meets up with her. The next line is purposefully left ambiguous. The speaker says, “I charge him, fly”. It is not clear exactly to whom she refers when she says “him”. She could be speaking of a past lover, or perhaps a family member. There is a definite separation between her past, which is unarmed and referred to as “her” and the “him” she mentions in the second line of this stanza. While the identity of this man remains unknown, the speaker challenges him directly. She charges him to “fly”. In the context of the next two lines, it appears that the speaker challenges this man to take his best shot. It appears that he is armed and ready to attack. And, although her past was unarmed when she met up with it, it appears that her past now has “rusty ammunition”. This implies that her past rarely attacks, but has had to attack long, long ago. The man the speaker refers to as “him” is apparently going to “fly” at her with some kind of attack. In response to this attack, her past will may need to “reply” with her “rusty ammunition”.

The second stanza of ‘The Past is such a curious Creature’ seems very ambiguous at first glance, but when the reader begins to ponder the identity of “him” and the necessity of the past, who is normally peaceful, to fire up her “rusty ammunition” it becomes clear that whoever has stepped back into the reader’s life is someone she will need to defend herself against. The past, she seems to conclude, will be her defense. Perhaps, the speaker realizes that her defense against “him” is to remember what has happened in the past. In the context of this reading, it is possible that when the speaker came face to face with her past, it was in the form of coming face to face with “him”. This man seems to bring her past before her. However, the speaker makes a very clear distinction between her past and this man. The past, she personifies as a female creature, While the one she refers to as “him” could have been the one who made her look her past face to face, she makes it clear that her past is something separate from him, something that remains unarmed unless she must make a defense. This description allows the reader to ponder his or her own past. Sometimes, the present brings in something or someone that causes a person to come to have to face his past. Sometimes, like in this case, the memories offer a defense.

This description of the past brings the reader back to the opening line of ‘The Past is such a curious Creature’. The speaker’s original claim that “the past is such a curious creature” comes to mind when the reader has read the last stanza. Thus, the speaker brings the readers full circle, allowing them to understand the various reasons for her description of the past as “a curious creature”. It can sneak up on anyone. It is not always easy to understand. It is usually unarmed but sometimes will need to make a defense. This is, in fact, the description of a curious sort of creature. There are no creatures like it, and the speaker makes the past come alive by personifying it this way.

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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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