Dickinson, Commonplacing, and a Bump on the Head

by Emily Price

Wintertime brings anticipation and joy, especially during the seasons of Advent and Epiphany. But it also brings earlier sunsets and lower temperatures, with the dark and cold encroaching persistently upon each day. As daylight wanes, I feel life’s burdens converge with pressing daily tasks, and together they grow heavy.

The other day I mustered up the resolve to push back against the heaviness of wintertime by planning an early morning run before work. In itself it was a small task, but in the dark and cold it felt giant. That morning I stumbled around in search of my running shoes, still half asleep. A moment later I reeled backward. In the dark I had run straight into the door. Almost before I understood what had happened, I found myself thinking,

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead.

You may recognize this verse from Emily Dickinson’s poem “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” I laughed aloud as I realized that Dickinson’s words precisely described me in that moment, not only literally in my clumsiness, but also metaphorically. The poem directly addresses what it means to push back against the weight of burdens that are heavy to bear for even a few steps.

Admittedly my anecdote is a bit tongue in cheek and at best might elicit a chuckle, but as I consider it, I think this experience actually points to something much more profound. When I first encountered Dickinson’s poem, I read it aloud several times and recorded it in a notebook, which you might call a commonplace book. In the time since, I had thought of it now and then—perhaps three or four times in as many years. Each time I returned to it I felt more deeply understood and instructed by it, but still I did not expect it to affect me in any particularly profound or lasting way. And yet, because I had written it down, because I held on to it and revisited it occasionally, it bumped into me at a moment in which I truly needed it.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of keeping a commonplace book, or commonplacing, it refers to the practice of collecting excerpts of writings in a notebook to consider and contemplate. This discipline was adopted by monks in the Middle Ages, for whom it became a spiritual practice. In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Jean Leclercq explains that in the monastic tradition passages were selected and copied out “so as to savor them at leisure and use them anew as subjects for private meditation” (p. 182). These collections of writings were called florilegium, meaning “a gathering of flowers.”

The ancient practice of keeping a florilegium, or a commonplace book, is now being widely recovered by classical educators and their students. In a commonplace book you can record passages of literature, excerpts or whole poems, and musings or questions that emerge from your reading. As you add to this collection of “flowers,” the journal itself becomes like a tapestry—common threads emerge, and you may see connections between entries that previously went unnoticed. Keeping a commonplace book is a way to invite what is good and true and beautiful to work its way deeply into your memory—your being. When we do so, Leclercq describes, “Like bees, we sip from [our reading] what is most nutritious” (p. 182).

I confess that my commonplace journal is a not the most beautiful example, with its little clusters of entries from different moments of inspiration which then waned as more pressing tasks stole my attention. I am sure that, for those who keep them faithfully, commonplace books have a truly profound effect. But even for those of us whose efforts are fragmented, it is a practice that allows wisdom and insight to seep into our souls and instruct us. And sometimes that wisdom hits you directly in the forehead.

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