Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn
Indicative that suns go down;
The notice to the startled grass
That darkness is about to pass.

This poem is a definition poem; Dickinson wrote a number of poems defining words.  A presentiment is a foreboding, a feeling that something is about to happen, usually something unpleasant or evil.

Dickinson uses the metaphor of a shadow to define a presentiment. Except for the first two words, the entire poem describes the shadow. It is described so concretely that an inattentive reader might think the poem was only a description of the shadow. The key to understanding this poem is to apply the details describing the shadow to a presentiment or premonition. How is a presentiment like a long shadow?

A long shadow appears before the person or thing that is casting it; so a presentiment gives warning or appears before the event. A long shadow indicates a setting sun; a presentiment may indicate death (the setting sun is a common symbol for death, and Dickinson uses it in this way in other poems). Grass is startled by the warning, just as an individual is startled by the foreboding. The warning is that darkness (something harmful or deadly?) is "about to pass" or happen.

She uses present tense to capture the sense of imminence (imminence: impending evil, some danger about to happen). Present tense indicates that the danger is not safely past or over.

Please just look at the first line of the poem; don't think about meaning. Question: What do you notice about its appearance?

Answer: It is considerably longer than the other three lines in the poem; Dickinson is duplicating the length of a shadow in the length of her line.

Dickinson also uses sounds to achieve her effects. What words alliterate in line 1? Does the alliteration emphasize important words/ideas, or has she made a mistake in alliterating these words? She uses a pattern of s sounds. Find all the words that contain s, regardless of its position in the word. Has she emphasized and connected important words and ideas by repeating a sound? The s sound can achieve a number of different effects: it may create a feeling of softness, suggest hush and silence, or remind us of the hissing of a snake. (You may have noticed that softness, hush, silence, hiss all contain s.) Do you think Dickinson used s to achieve a special effect, or is their presence merely coincidence?

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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