This poem could be about Emily’s experience as a writer working in relative isolation and having to “grope a little” in the darkness until she can adjust to “Midnight”. She might also be writing about dreams / the imagination, “Those Evenings of the Brain”, and how it’s a difficult process to learn to use one’s dreams / imagination in the act of making art that’s “almost straight”.
In “I found the words to every thought” Emily describes how we live like Plato’s prisoners in the cave and that art can only approximate the real thing, but also when art inspires us the words on the page or the oils on the canvas do seem to have the effect of orientating us in the direction of truth / the exit to the cave – if we let it. Imagine, for a moment, that we are one of Plato’s prisoners and one of our companions escapes then returns with news of the world outside our prison. All our companion can do is use language to approximate their experiences and hope that their skill with language is sufficient to inspire us to see what they see. Poetry is like this. The poet goes out at “Midnight” and explores the world of darkness but because they can adjust their eyes to the “Darkness” they avoid the danger of hitting their head on a low hanging “Tree” limb and then return to us with news of their adventure. And though we have not actually seen what they have seen and experienced, a skilled poet can still inspire us, can enable us to see in the darkness what no other light can illuminate. Though it be “Midnight” and “not a Moon disclose a sign – or Star”, we can still see clearly because our companion – the poet – has scouted on ahead and reports back to us.
The first two words of the poem seems to be the central thesis (as if poems could have a thesis) in that “We grow”. The entire poem is about growth, about finding one’s way, and for Emily perhaps finding one’s way as an artist who can see into the darkness of dreams and imagination and report back to the reader with her findings in such a way as to allow us to see what we have never seen before. Paradoxically, growth in this poem happens in the “Dark”, in the absence of sunlight in which things normally grow. In the first stanza the sun has gone down “As when the Neighbor” takes her “Lamp” inside after waving “Good bye” for the evening. And so when everyone is asleep, when the world is blanketed in darkness, “We grow”.
And our growth begins with those first tentative steps we take into the “newness of the night” as we try to see into the darkness. This is an interesting image in that she is asking us – as well as herself – to look at and into what cannot be seen. She asks us to “fit our Vision for the Dark” and so we must look not with our eyes, but with our minds, our imagination, our ability to dream. She asks us to become like the dreamer in “Many a phrase has the English language” who, though they sleep quietly in the darkness, the canvas of their imagination is illuminated brilliantly in their dreams. Emily describes this “larger – Darkness” in the third stanza as being the expansive landscape of our dreams in which not even the “Moon” or a “star” can shine its brilliance through our closed and sleepy eyes.
In the fourth stanza she describes how when we give ourselves over the the “Darkness” of our imagination we are brave because we must struggle to find our way. One can imagine Emily sitting at her desk struggling to find the right words for this poem, struggling to see into her own imagination what can only be illuminated with her own inner light (for not “Moon” or “star” light can penetrate there) and translate those visions into a language we can understand in the light of the waking world. And she explains how her attempts might be awkward, at least at first, and that she will hit her head on a low-hanging “Tree” branch as she gropes about for the right words, but eventually, with practice and bravery, she – and us – will “learn to see”. “We grow” with each attempt.
And thus in the final stanza she describes this landscape of “Darkness” as an exotic land that not only “alters” us as in how “We grow” from our travels there, but also that the “Darkness” is like an alter that we go to worship at. Emily is suggesting that the act of creating art is an almost religious experience and that to allow oneself to enter that hallowed, darkened cathedral alone will lead one to the light of the imagination in which the “Moon” and “star” shines brighter in the darkness of our imaginations than they do in reality. And at the alter is the poem itself, opened like the gospels for the priest to interpret to the people below, to guide them with the light of art, with the experiences of what they have seen ahead of the congregation who have not yet traveled to that land so that they may be prepared to enter the “Darkness” on their own, to give the people courage to be brave to see the light in even the darkest of nights. For Emily art is prophecy and she the reverent who “holds the Lamp” and wishes us “Good bye”.