Emily Dickinson’s Paradox of Death
[The poems I will be discussing can all be found online; have some links: Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord –– I felt a Funeral, in my Brain –– ‘Tis so appalling – it exhilarates –– That after Horror – that ’twas us.]
Recently, I have been immersing myself in Emily Dickinson’s poetry (through the marvelous Final Harvest collection). As a general rule, I think her poems in a substantial sense do not stand alone; rather, they must be read in light of each other. Her poems frequently capture moments of great intensity, but these moments gain their meaning only half through their intensity. Equally important is their relation to other moments. Certain of her poems make this explicit, for instance no. 125, which begins, “For each ecstatic instant / We must an anguish pay.” Individual poems often capture ecstasy and anguish individually—to see the relations between them you need a more synoptic view. This point becomes more potent when you consider the recurring words and images in her poetry. (Now that I’ve made this point, I must add the caveat that I haven’t even gotten to her 1962 poems in Final Harvest, and so proper caution requires admitting that I can only be confident in this point for her early poems. I should also add that I am using the numbering from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, which is the numbering in parentheses in Final Harvest.)
While I think this is generally true of Dickinson’s poetry, certain of her poems seem to me to belong together in an even more robust sense. I mentioned that Dickinson tends to capture intense instants. Much of her poetry is unified in exploring various types of such moments, and of exploring moments of the same type from different points of view. Some of her poems, however, do more: they each address the same specific instance, not just instances of the same type. My topic here is one of these sets of poems, a sequence of four, written in 1961, which cover the moment of death (though, we shall see, perhaps not biological death). These poems are nos. 279-281, and no. 286. As the title suggests, I will discuss these in light of a certain paradoxical view they paint about death.
A good way to approach this paradox is to start with the ending of no. 280. That poem begins, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” establishing death as a theme. It ends with an ambiguity that highlights the paradox. The final stanza is:
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
The first thing to note is that the poem ends, not with a period, but with a dash. This creates the ambiguity in the final line, which may (and should) be read in two distinct ways. Most naturally, especially if punctuation is ignored for the moment, one reads it as “And Finished knowing then [i.e. at that moment].” That accords well with our view of death as possessing a certain finality, as something from which one cannot come back. Dickinson surely intends this reading. But add punctuation back in and a different reading opens up: “And Finished knowing – then [i.e. and then] –“ On this second reading, we can make sense of the dash that ends the poem. The dash implies open-endedness as opposed to the finality of a period, and this is captured in reading “then” as “and then.” The natural question is, of course, and then what? What comes next? This effect is much like that of no. 258 (“There’s a certain Slant of light”), which places us “On the look of Death –“, ending with the same dash. In no. 280 as well, we are brought to the look of Death, and what we see is left open. Unlike no. 258, however, Dickinson does attempt an answer to the question of no. 280, which we see in no. 281. Indeed, with the second reading in mind, it is possible to move right from the end of no. 280 to the beginning of no. 281.
And Finished knowing – then –
‘Tis so appalling – it exhilarates –
This ambiguity between two readings brings out the paradoxical feature of death as Dickinson sees it: finality and open-endedness. Death is—must be—final. As I suggested earlier and will justify later, Dickinson is not talking so much about biological death as about something else. Nonetheless, the dominant feature of biological death is its permanence, and any other sort of death she might discuss must possess that feature to be worthy of the name. The second reading of the final line, however, implicates open-endedness, a something after death. And, if my readings of nos. 281 and 286 are correct (I am not at all sure they are), this something is a sort of renewal of life. How can death be both final and renewing in this way? That is Emily Dickinson’s paradox of death.
The rest of my discussion will take the form of interpretation of the four poems in the sequence in light of this view. However, I don’t claim to have a complete understanding of them, or even a fully coherent partial understanding of them. Rather, what follows will be a sort of record of my current progress in struggling with these rich and difficult poems.
To start, I should justify my taking them together in the first place. No. 279 begins, “Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord, / Then, I am ready to go!” and the final stanza makes it clear that what she is ready to go to is death: “Goodbye to the Life I used to live – / And the World I used to know –“ The poem is a record of someone on the brink of death, about to plunge. The mood is overwhelmingly excitement: the final line repeats, “Then – I am ready to go!”
No. 280 doesn’t obviously deal with the same moment as no. 279, but there are subtle clues. It clearly deals with death, right from the opening, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”. What establishes it as the same death explored in no. 279 are the lines, “And I, and Silence, some strange Race / Wrecked, solitary, here –“ Compare this to the lines in no. 279: “Held fast in Everlasting Race – / By my own Choice, and Thee –“ The lines in no. 280 clearly oppose those of no. 279: she is no longer “held fast” but is instead “wrecked,” and rather than being held fast by “Thee” (who must be God), she is “solitary,” accompanied only by personified “Silence.” These lines, I contend, only fully make sense in light of their counterparts in the other poem, and so nos. 279 and 280 must go together.
No. 281 is, for me, by far the most difficult of the four poems, but I am fairly confident that it should be grouped with the others. One reason I have already mentioned: the way no. 280 smoothly slides into no. 281. There is also an emphasis on knowing (now connected to hoping) that interacts with that of no. 280 in interesting ways (I will puzzle over this later). Likewise, the line, “Looking at Death, is Dying –“ strikes me as akin to the entirety of no. 280 (though the dominant modality there was audition, not vision). After the excitement of no. 279 and the dull beating funeral of no. 280, the vivid struggle of no. 281 seems a logical next step. Further, it is essential for understand the sense of renewal in the poems that I will talk about, though in a strange way. Further reason for taking it with the others is its connection to no. 286, for which see below.
Finally, there is no. 286. It begins, “That after Horror – that ‘twas us –“, recalling “So over Horror” from no. 281. Likewise, the line “Puts recollection numb –“ brings to mind “till I thought / My Mind was going numb –“ from no. 280. Similarly, “Without a Moment’s Bell –“ raises very interesting contrasts with no. 280’s “Then Space – began to toll, / As all the Heavens were a Bell”. The links to no. 280 justify its place in the sequence, while its links to no. 281 help cement that no. 281 indeed also belongs.
Of the four, no. 279 is the easiest to initially grasp. It may be read, on a first go through, as the poet’s willingness to die: just put my life in order, and then “we must ride to the Judgment.” So long as she is confident that she is “on the firmest side”, then she need not “mind the steepest” or “mind the sea”—she is “ready to go!” On this reading, the poem is a fairly standard vision of death and judgment: first one dies, then one is judged. The poem is then noteworthy mostly for its beautiful expression. There is one wrinkle, however: the line, “Held fast in Everlasting Race –“ What is strange is that the race is everlasting. But the race is just the “ride to the Judgment”. It seems, then, that judgment is never reached. In what sense, though, is the race everlasting? To see this we have to turn to no. 280.
We’ve already seen how no. 280 portrays the race as “wrecked” and “solitary.” As mentioned, the dominant modality of the poem is audition. It starts with touch (she felt a funeral), but quickly moves to the beating of a drum. Then she “heard them lift a Box / And creak across my Soul”. (The next line includes “Boots of Lead”, which is a predominantly touch-related image. The primary impression is that of the heaviness of the boots, which corresponds to the general heaviness and murkiness captured throughout the poem. So touch is more important than I have thus far given it credit for.) Where the real clue lies, however, is in the next sound:
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
What is interesting here is that it is space itself that begins to toll—and in this capacity we can recall the line “Without a Moment’s Bell” from no. 286. The tolling is something abstracted from time, something outside of time altogether. It is not the tolling of a moment but of a spatial region. With this in mind, we can see the “ride to the Judgment” as also abstracted from time. Judgment is indeed an end point in space (hence its being what the poet is riding to), but not in time, and so the race can be everlasting, in the sense in which the eternity of God is sometimes understood as being altogether outside time, rather than as God existing for an infinite amount of time.
I think this suggests that Dickinson is not talking about death in the biological sense, which occurs when one is, say, seventy-three years old. Death and the race to judgment, as Dickinson here considers them, are events altogether outside of time. Thomas Johnson, in the introduction to Final Harvest, describes Dickinson as believing in final judgment as “not a foreseeable end, but a pronouncement renewed in all moments of existence.” This helps to make sense of death and the race to judgment as outside time: death is not an event at the end of someone’s life, after which there is judgment. Rather, final judgment is present in every moment—and so death too must be present.
This makes good sense of no. 279. When the poet says she is “ready to go” in no. 279, she is ready to rush headlong into life, with the assurance that God is at her side. Every decision she makes is a saying goodbye to “the Life I used to live – / And the World I used to know –“ Since this is always true, this mood is not to be adopted once, in the facing of death at the end of life, but rather again and again, in the facing of life itself, at each moment.
Since every instant of living involves death in this fashion, there is always the possibility of mourning, which no. 280 explores. Here, the poet is an observer, watching as the “Mourners to and for / Kept treading – treading”, hearing “them lift a Box” (emphasis added). She is dissociated from the funeral, unable to see it but able to hear it and feel it—presumably because it is her in the box, her and Silence. As detailed above, it ends with an ambiguity between finality and open-endedness. There is no definite ending to the funeral, no clear answer to what happens after she stops knowing.
This is where no. 281 and no. 286 come in, and where things get murkier. My basic understanding is that no. 281 is a looking back immediately after the plunge of no. 280. Thus the line, “The Soul stares after it, secure –”—to understand this, notice that in no. 280 there is a dissociation between the “I” of the poem and the soul, as captured in the lines, “And then I heard them lift a Box / And creak across my Soul”. Thus it is possible for the I in the box to plunge even while the soul remains. Hence the soul may stare after it, may “scan a Ghost”. This staring soon becomes grappling, but the poem ends with exhortations neither to look (for “Looking at Death, is Dying –“) nor to grapple (“Others, Can wrestle – / Yours, is done –“). What is the result of this? To set “the Fright at liberty – / And Terror free –“ Earlier in the poem was the line, “How easy, Torment, now –“, i.e. while wrestling. Stopping looking and stopping grappling reintroduces this torment: “And so of Woe, bleak dreaded – come”.
Why stop looking, then? Why stop wrestling? No. 286 answers this question with a vision even more terrifying than no. 281’s “Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!” Looking back on the event of nos. 279-281, we recall that “That after Horror – that ‘twas us –“, and what we saw “after Horror” was a “mouldering Pier – / Just as the Granite Crumb let go –“ This vision of decay gets worse, for it turns out that, a mere second later, “Our Savior” would have “dropped too deep / For Fisherman to plumb –“, i.e. the poet’s Savior was nearly lost forever. In no. 279 we saw the hopeful promise of renewal even in death; now we are presented with the horrifying “possibility – to pass / Without a Moment’s Bell – / Into Conjecture’s presence –“, the possibility of permanent loss of “Our Savior.” Every moment thus hangs between these two possibilities: renewal and finality. Further, since we know from innumerable of Dickinson’s poems (especially no. 125, cited earlier), there is no ecstasy without anguish, and so renewal carries with it a renewed possibility of torment. While this may seem a terrible thought in the moment, hindsight reveals that closing oneself off to torment by looking backwards, at death, is itself of a form of death and decay.
This completes my discussion of Dickinson’s paradox. I hope I have shown how she conceives renewal and finality as coexisting in death, the sort of death that is inextricably linked with each moment of life. The poems are much richer than my discussion has done justice to, and I want to end by giving some sense of this by exploring two areas in which I do not yet understand the poems. A proper understanding of both could well call into question much of what I’ve said above.
First, there is a bit of tension between nos. 280 and 286. In no. 280, it is the “I” of the poem who plunges, but in no. 286 it is “Our Savior” who threatens to drop, while it is “us” who pass “the mouldering Pier.” It would be easy to simply pass these off as two separate events, but I don’t see that as a fully plausible option. In no. 280, one aspect of the fall is that the “I” is “finished Knowing”, and likewise in no. 286 there is the threatening possibility of passing “Into Conjecture’s presence–“, where conjecture of course is something less than knowledge. Perhaps they are two ways of seeing the same event, one the view from within, the other the view looking back. I don’t know how to extend this option plausibly, which is not to say it cannot be done. In any case, the tension exists and must be resolved somehow.
Second, and more interesting, is the role that knowledge plays in all of this, which also seems to be in tension. Knowledge features in each of nos. 280, 281, and 286, in different ways. In no. 280, what occasions the plunge is that “a Plank in Reason, broke”, and of course the end result is that she “Finished knowing – then –” In no. 281, knowledge is set across from prayer: “But we, who know, / Stop hoping, now –“ Further, Truth is likened to winter, “Bald, and Cold –“ This allows us to interpret the line, “A Sepulchre, fears frost, no more –“, as being about lacking the fear of Truth. Finally, in no. 286, there is:
The possibility – to pass
Without a Moment’s Bell –
Into Conjecture’s presence –
It is fairly easy to square no. 280 with no. 286. We already saw that the bell tolling in no. 280 is outside of time, and this heralds a plunge into the end of knowing, occasioned by a break in a plank of reason. Since conjecture is something less than truth,* no. 286 can easily be seen as detailing from a different vantage point the same fall as in no. 280—knowing finishes without a moment’s bell because, of course, the bell is not one in time. The bell that I described as heralding the plunge is, properly seen, probably simultaneous with it.
No. 281 is harder to square with this. The opposition of knowing to praying is both incredibly difficult and something that I continue to find ineffable. Many of Dickinson’s poems detail the incredible hopefulness of summer, in contrast to the harsh solitude of winter, and so when she associates truth with winter it is of course natural to associate prayer with summer. Truth and knowing, then, is a sort of absence from God, which would suggest that when a plank of reason breaks, that is an event that allows a reconnection with God. I don’t know if this is a sustainable interpretation. Johnson, in his introduction, writes, “her judgment persistently asserts that neither intuition nor reason can solve the riddle of existence,” so perhaps what is occurring is a critique of both knowing and praying, which would be consonant with her poem no. 185, in which both come under (humorous) fire:
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
In any event, I don’t know exactly what to do with knowing and praying in these four poems. Since “I don’t know” is an unsatisfying ending, and since I’m not Plato and probably can’t get away with it, I’ll instead try to distract from my aporia by mentioning an interesting connection to Plato, possibly coincidental, in these poems. As it happens, this morning I was reading chapters 9 and 10 of Waterfield’s translation of Plato’s Republic, in which Plato gives his famous images of the divided line and the cave. In the divided line, there are four possible states, two of which are knowledge and conjecture—an interesting parallel to Dickinson’s talk of falling from knowledge to conjecture in no. 286. No. 286 also includes the lines, “The very profile of the Thought / Puts Recollection numb –“. Plato’s theory of knowledge was that it is a form of recollection, and, in the allegory of the cave, what people see on the walls of the cave are mere shadows (i.e. appearances) of the real things which may be grasped in thought (the forms). A profile is a face seen from a perspective, so a Platonist might read these lines as the shadows in the cave numbing the work of recollection to gain true knowledge. This comparison is a bit forced and meant primarily humorously, but hopefully it will succeed in providing a more satisfying conclusion than aporia.