“The first Day’s Night had come –“ charts the speaker’s descent into madness after a tragedy. The “first Day” in this poem is the first day following some crisis or tragedy that has so rocked the speaker that the past is utterly cleaved from the present and future. Night has come, and the speaker says she is “grateful that a thing/So terrible – had been endured –,“ as though she has convinced herself that the tragedy will only effect her for this one day. In celebration of the day ending, she orders her “Soul to sing –.”
It quickly becomes clear, however, that this unnamed event has not, truly, been endured yet. Her soul will not sing because it has been so damaged by this tragedy (“She said her Strings were snapt –/Her Bow – to Atoms blown –“). Again, with naïve optimism, the speaker and her soul believe that it will only take one night of work to heal the soul (“And so to mend her – gave me work/Until another Morn –“).
Instead, when the next day comes, the pain is double that of the day before (“And then – a Day as huge/As Yesterdays in pairs”), and the “horror” this presents is so profound that the speaker cannot see (“Until it blocked my eyes –“). She is so incapable of facing this that her brain then splits off from her persona, and beings “to laugh,” we can imagine, maniacally.
The speaker herself loses her ability to speak eloquently (“I mumbled – like a fool –“). She then tells us that all of this happened “Years ago,” but that her “Brain keeps giggling – still,” thus, her sanity, her united identity, has not reformed. She then for the first time explicitly addresses her madness—“And Something’s odd – within –.” She realizes that her former self and her current self “do not feel the same,” thus she has lost her identity. She finishes the poem by questioning her sanity—“Could it be Madness – this?”
In the first stanza of “The first Day’s Night had come –,” it quickly becomes clear that the unnamed thing that the speaker has endured is so terrible, and the pain following it so great, that she has to believe that it will magically be better the next day. Thus she says she is “grateful” that it has “been endured,” although to the reader, it is clear that one cannot be healed from “a thing / So terrible” in only a day. The speaker’s order to her soul makes this more clear, as one does not normally tell one’s soul to sing; it is normally a spontaneous event. But the speaker is desperate, and needs to believe that she has overcome, and needs her soul to sing to prove this.
The soul, of course, cannot follow this order, as she too, or at least, her ability to sing, has been destroyed by the tragedy. The speaker’s desperate need to believe that she can heal is then again made clear. Although “Her Bow” is blown to bits, the speaker seems to think that one night’s work can put it back together. This hope that she will be able to heal is then completely destroyed the next morning, when the pain is in fact doubled. This vision of “Yesterdays in pairs”—of unending, doubling misery—is so horrifying that the speaker stops seeing. The only way to escape this is to, essentially, leave reality, and leave her identity in someone else’s hands.
The splitting up of the speaker’s identity is enacted in the formal aspects of the poem. Although Dickinson uses dashes frequently in her poems, here they are used more abundantly than usual, and in the middle of lines much more often. These dashes that are in almost every line break them up, and make clauses, characters, and actions all stand separately from each other, divided. She also uses alliteration to emphasize moments of coming apart, as in “She said her Strings were snapt –,“ and “Her Bow – to Atoms blown –.“
Her brain steps in to take over, but like her self and her soul, it is also very damaged, and so can only laugh maniacally. This laughter, however, is still stronger than the speaker’s weak mumbling, and so the speaker can recede into herself, away from the pain. The “like a fool” that follows the dash can be applied both to the speaker’s mumbling and to the brain’s laughter—though the speaker relinquishes control of her identity, it is ceded to another who is just as damaged.
Years pass, and the laughter never stops, although it has subsided to giggles. The speaker’s identity is thus clearly still divided, yet she seems to have lost her ability to communicate with those other pieces. In discussing her past self, she says “that person,” which is a very remote way to put it, and her remarking that “Something’s odd – within,” also feels vague and distant. She has become docile, and discontinuous in her identity. She is not still wrestling with her demons, but simply fading out, which seems to give a resounding “yes” as the answer to the question that she poses to end the poem — “Could it be Madness – this?”