Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson’

Emily Dickinson – “When Night is almost done –”

Close attention to the meter in Emily Dickinson’s “When Night is almost done – “ re­veals a tension between the meaning of the words and the mood of the rhythm. First, the poem (#347):

When Night is almost done –
And Sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the Spaces –
It’s time to smooth the Hair –

And get the Dimples ready –
And wonder we could care
For that old – faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –

The base meter of the poem is iambic trimeter – lines 1, 4, and 6 are all follow this meter perfectly. There are a few substitutions in the first six lines – line 2 has a spondee for its second foot (-rise grows), and lines 3 and 5 end with amphibrachs rather than iambs – but mostly she follows the meter closely in the opening lines. In the closing lines, however, Dickinson engages in quite daring metrical variation, and it’s very successful.

Before I get to that, however, I’d like to make some preliminary comments on other formal aspects of the poem. There is an obvious break-point in the poem, the stanza break, and it separates logically two halves of the poem. The first stanza focuses on the end of night and the coming sunrise, while the second stanza turns attention to the ability of night to frighten. This is a logical division, but other aspects of the poem fight against it. Dickinson uses off rhyme within stanzas (near/Hair; care/Hour), but lines 4 and 6 have perfect rhyme (Hair/care). Thus, even though there is a stanza break separating them, there is a close connection between lines 4 and 6. This creates the sense that the entire portion of the poem, from lines 2 to halfway through line 7, is a single entity separate from the rest. The remainder then looks like this:

When Night is almost done –
– faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –

Here we have together all the portion of the poem dealing with the night and its effects. They create an envelope, into which the portion about the sunrise is inserted. For me, at least, this suggests something less essential about the inserted portion. The fact that the night forms an envelope in this fashion keeps our attention focused there, and makes it the aspect of the poem that most lingers. Against this, the sunrise seems of secondary importance.

This sense is, I think, amplified by the metrical variations in the final two lines. Here’s a breakdown of the stress patterns (u = unstressed, – = stressed):

Line 7: u u – – u – –
Line 8: u – u u u –

I’m a bit uncertain about how to break down the feet in these lines. The base of the poem is iambic, which makes me want to read it this way:

Line 7: u u / – – / u – – [pyrrhic, spondee, cretic]
Line 8: u – / u u / u – [iamb, pyrrhic, iamb]

However, both lines contain a dash after the third syllable, and this forced pause leads to a competing inclination to read the lines as each opening with trisyllabic feet:

Line 7: u u – / – u / – – [anapest, trochee, spondee]
Line 8: u – u / u u – [amphibrach, anapest]

I am not sure which reading to choose, though I lean toward the first. In any case, the four stresses in line 7 really slow the line down, especially since they are bunched into a five-syllable span. This breaks up the relatively smooth flow of the preceding five lines, and dims the brightness of the sunrise for the transition back to night.

Then comes the last line, which is just masterful. The presence of only two stresses makes the line seem as if it should be really light. This complements the surface meaning of the words “that frightened but an hour.” They make the line go quickly, as the fright went quickly. But – there are the dashes. Read the line without the dashes, and it is as I just described, light, springy, easy. The first dash, however, inserts a pause right in the middle of its quickest portion (the pyrrhic), more or less eliminating the effect of having a pyrrhic there at all. The second dash, at the end of the line, similarly makes the line heavier. Instead of the satisfaction of a full stop (as one would expect at the end of a light, quick line), the dash forces us to linger with the night and the fright it brings.

The form of Dickinson’s poem thus fights with itself. On the surface, it seems to follow the literal meaning of the words, as seen in the stanza break and the meter, abstractly considered. However, the placement of the dashes and the rhyme scheme contest this obvious reading, showing a darker undercurrent to the poem. They resist the easy solution to the troubles of night that the poems appears to offer – even in the light, the night lingers.

Dickinson: continuation and finality

There is a sense of finality to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –“, but a strange sense. When, in the final line, we see a progression of events—chill, stupor, letting go—we cannot but take the last as indicating the releasing of one’s hold on life. What is the process of freezing (for that is what Dickinson describes)? First there is the feeling of cold, then a numb daze, too enervated even to feel cold, and then the letting go. But this straightforward process is introduced in a curious fashion. Thus far in the poem, Dickinson has described the period after a great pain, which she calls “the Hour of Lead”—a period that, she tells us, is “Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –“ (emphasis added). That is to say, this letting go, so suggestive of finality, is but a part of how the hour of lead is remembered, and it is only remembered if it is outlived—and where, then, is the finality? Outliving entails continuation, and continuation rules out finality. So there is a sense of finality to the poem, but a finality that must contend with the reality of continuation. Whatever ending there is, it is not a total ending.

The movements of the soul, of which the above poem details one, are mirrored, for Dickinson, in the movements of nature, and so we might look to a poem Dickinson wrote detailing the vagaries of nature, that we might better understand her poem detailing the vagaries of the soul. “I know a place where Summer strives” describes the annual struggle between warmth and frost: how Summer “each year – leads her Daisies back –“, how, later, “Her Heart misgives Her”, and how, finally, “she pours soft Refrains / Into the lap of Adamant”.

That this poem is connected with the first can hardly be doubted, if we consider that two crucial words are shared between each. The transition from summer to winter is captured, in this poem, by the image of the Dew, “That stiffens quietly to Quartz.  In the first poem, in surveying the aftermath of a great pain, we see a “stiff Heart” which feels “A Quartz contentment”. How can we not take the co-occurrence of these words as critical? The stiffness indicates death, rigor mortis, while the image of quartz suggests the beauty inherent in this death, which is nonetheless death. What the second poem suggests is that this stiffness, this quartz beauty, is cyclical, for the poem begins by reminding us how summer each year leads back her daisies. There is something impermanent about death.

But we may not rest complacent, for now another poem urges that its voice must be heard, as it, too, wishes a word about stiffness. “I know that He exists” imagines a game, a game of bliss, but a game that proves too earnest, when the glee of bliss comes to “glaze – / In Death’s – stiff – stare –“—then the “jest” of bliss has “crawled too far”.  Here all turns on the notion of bliss. Is bliss not our aim? But bliss might come at a high price: stiffness, i.e. death.

Here we may, one last time, look to another Dickinson poem for enlightenment. “Is Bliss then, such Abyss” suggests, once again, finality, in this case because bliss “is sold just once”—that is, pass up the one opportunity, and it is gone forever. But what is interesting about the poem is its final line, which suggests what occurs when we have this choice between finality (bliss) and continuation (whatever our life on this earth amounts to, which is certainly not bliss): “Verdict for Boot!” I cannot convey the power of these lines in a post like this—could I, I would not blog, but be a poet myself—but I hope their meaning, if not their power, is clear: Dickinson (or her avatar) has chosen continuance over the finality of bliss.

And that, I think, is what is fundamental in these poems. There is a sense of finality, of the absolute, but only in a death that is permanent, unending, unsupplanted. Against this, there is a sense of continuance, in just that which recurs annually, which rejects absolute bliss in favor of that partial existence that—with all its ineluctable partiality—characterizes our humanity. I do not claim to have made sense of these four Dickinson poems (could I ever?), but I hope I have at least captured one or two of their themes, and in my relationship with Dickinson, I may count that as a substantial achievement.

Dickinson’s invitation to Dickinson

My recent receipt of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson) of­fers as fine an opportunity as any to plunge once again into her sea, admiring now the individual drops of poetry, now the ocean they compose, now the one may struggle against the other. Here I encounter Dickinson’s own invitation to her poetry in the light of my existing, if meager, knowledge of what is to come.

The volume is arranged more or less in chronological order, though not perfectly so. This yields the placement of two poems—“There is another sky” (1851) and “On this wondrous sea” (1853)—at the beginning of my renewed encounter. There are, in fact, two other poems mixed in, both written for Valentine’s Day, one in 1850, the other in 1852. They are stylistically quite different from her other poems, and I shall ignore them; I accept whatever perils doing so entails. The first of these poems functions as an invitation to the poetry to follow—whether Dickinson intended it as such, I do not know—while the second illustrates a further aspect of the mood permeating the first. What follows is my response to this invitation. If I have a theme, it is of the dangers of writing one’s introduction first, rather than last, writing it with the audacity of hope rather than the maturity of experience. I say “dangers”, but I do not condemn: I find inestimable richness in the result, and, moreover, am myself writing this introduction in ignorance of just what is to follow.

It will be good to begin with the text of “There is another sky”:

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent field –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

In isolation, I do not think the poem is much—only with eyes trained by reading the later poems does its significance come into view. The surface of the poem is quite straightforward: a distinction between the outer world with its change of seasons, its sunsets, and the more stable inner world. The inner is a model of the outer, only with greater stability, and a positive—so it seems—stability at that: the inner celebrates a perpetual spring, an ever serene sky, ever green leaves, unfading flowers, ever humming bees. It is addressed to her brother, Austin, and she ends by inviting him into her garden. The poem hums with optimism, with confidence.

It also introduces themes and images that persist throughout her career: the inner world as best modeled after the seasons, the bee and the flower, the sunset, the frost. With this knowledge, the poem begins to look like an invitation into her poetry—of course the direct address to her brother remains, but is easy to “forget” by the final lines—since, of course, that poetry is well-described as a faithful record of her inner world. But what this invitation promises is not at all what the explorer of the forest will discover.

This optimism carries over into her poem from 1853—and from 1854, though I will not look at the one—the text of which is:

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar –
Where the storm is o’er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest –
The anchors fast –
Thither I pilot thee
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

More of Dickinson’s themes arrive: first and foremost, life as a sea. The sea is dangerous, violent, unstable—contrasted with the stability of land and Eternity. The character of an introduction emerges more and more when this poem is combined with the last. We get, first, a description of the contents to follow—the exploration of “my garden”—and now a definite sense of direction: a move from turbulence to eternity. Eternity is here situated at the end of life, as what is reached upon death, sunset of the soul in the “peaceful west”.

At first, the poems seem to disagree with one another about the location of stability: the first places it within life, in Dickinson’s inner world; the second, at the end of life, with death and eternity. But the second poem is not espousing the sentiment that life is a burden and death a relief: though the sea is stormy, it is nonetheless “wondrous”. This suggests, to me, the same placidity in the midst of external turbulence that the first poem offers, and thus I see them as consistent.

So we have Dickinson’s introduction and invitation to Dickinson. There is a description of the contents, the task: an exploration of the inner world. And there is the description of the movement, the goal: a movement toward death and eternity. It could not be much clearer. But there is a reason why one is always advised to write the introduction last, after all else is complete. A project never quite ends up the way it is planned from the start—new discoveries lead to new goals, and often contradict initial expectations. So too, inevitably, with Dickinson.

I will bring this out by looking at just two later poems, chosen somewhat arbitrarily. The second, because it has to do with the sea, and because when I first read it it struck me sufficiently that I remembered it upon reading “On this wondrous sea”. The first, because it also has to do with the sea, and because I happened to notice it while looking for the second. So, first, “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –“:

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality –
As I – toward Thee –

She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small – she sighs – if All – is All
How larger – be?

The Ocean – smiles – at her Conceit –
But she­, forgetting Amphitrite –
Pleads – “Me”?

Once again, Dickinson places herself at sea, only now, she does not sail on it, but is part of it. There is no question of a drop finding stability ashore: there is only the sea, endless, perpetual sea. Nor is the sea still wondrous—or, it is, but not in the same way as before. Rather, it is something within which the drop wrestles. The drop is forgetful: she “forgets her own locality”, cannot see her place in the sea, would be larger than she is, “Pleads – ‘Me’?”—gets trapped, in short, in a harmful egoism, a selfish egoism. The rebuke is gentle: the ocean “smiles”—I do not think it mocking, though Dickinson as poet mocks herself, the absurdity of her conceit.

The shift in the metaphor, from being at sea to being in the sea, makes all the difference. Again, a drop cannot seek stability ashore. The goal toward which she first set sail has turned out to be illusory and impossible, and the placidity with which she traveled has become struggle. There is no purposeful movement, only wrestling in place.

But, while the shift in metaphor is central to this poem, it is not the only way in which the promises of her introduction can break down. Keeping with the old metaphor will do just as well, as “The difference between Despair” well shows:

The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –

Here Dickinson explores two emotions or moods that one would not have expected to find inside her garden, given her introduction. Despair is likened to the instant of a wreck, fear to the aftermath. Despair is short but tumultuous: cracking timber, the boat being sucked downward, the knowledge of impending death. But fear is quite different. It is placid: the surface is smooth again, there is contentment. It is almost as if one is not even alive, is a bust. Fear knows it cannot see, and does not despair of the fact. It is a sort of grim determination.

We have returned to the image of being at sea and not in it. But if this is so, then what we are seeing is the outcome of the voyage begun with such hopes of reaching shore. Despair and the wreck are ineluctable, and so too the aftermath of fear. Any such voyage will end this way, sucked into life, and no longer heading toward eternity. And then comes fear. Like in her garden, there is a tranquility, but now it is not the tranquility that comes with an endless spring, rather it is a grim determination and contentment. The optimism has vanished.

These two poems illustrate but part of the overall shift in Dickinson’s work from these two early poems. They illustrate what breaks the optimism of those poems. But I do not mean to suggest that Dickinson’s poetry is a poetry of despair. Her quest for eternity is not halted but changed: eternity shifts from being something at the end of life to something found within life, with all its struggle and horror. The result is not optimism—grim determination may well capture it—but I do not feel anything is lost. What is gained is richer, if more terrible—richer because it is more terrible.

These poems also illustrate the power of metaphors, for Dickinson. Dickinson, in those two early poems, brings in metaphors in a youthful, naïve way. She models the inner world on the outer, with its change of seasons and its sunsets, and she models life as a voyage at sea. She does so in an optimistic spirit, and there is a beauty in that. But once she has set down these metaphors they take on a life of their own, and she is led down paths she did not anticipate. The inner world, modeled against the outer, increasingly ceases to represent a happier version of the outer and a bulwark against its vicissitudes—it comes to mirror it. And the voyage at sea exposes Dickinson to the possibility and ineluctability of wrecks. She, in her optimism, overlooked these possibilities, but now she must confront them.

This illustrates, then, the danger of writing an introduction before the work is completed. Dickinson makes promises she cannot fulfill, raises issues with which she must continually struggle and which continually defy her initial optimism. The advice to write the introduction last is of the highest prudence. But there is something poetic about the introduction written at the beginning, and not simply placed there after the fact.

The difference stems from the difference in perspective that each necessarily takes. The introduction written last is a view from above, the view of a spectator surveying the completed work. That the work is her own is important, but the introduction serves only to state her accomplishments, and hardly to contribute to them. The introduction written first, by contrast, is inherently active, is a view from within. It contributes to the project it attempts to introduce, by setting out—and not just describing—paths that will be followed. Of course, these descriptions end up false, but that does not make the description any less valuable. As the example of Dickinson shows, these naïve, youthful, optimistic introductions raise complications that cannot be foreseen, but the struggle with these complications may yield unforeseen fruit. The falseness of the description arises precisely because it raises issues beyond its control, introduces problems that elude its grasp—the very sources of its value.

But perhaps Dickinson captured the difference best. An introduction written at the end is on firm land, “ashore at last”. An introduction written first is, by contrast, at sea, lost, with no land in sight, excepting what is hallucinated. Introductions from above may yield the eternity of a destination reached, but introductions from within offer the eternity of endless beginning and struggle—a more terrible, but for that very reason richer, eternity.


Dickinson’s vital death

There is something wrong with reading a Dickinson poem in isolation, or so it seems to me. For every poem I am compelled to ask: but where is your brother who questions you? Where is your sister who answers your question? Your mood is contractive, withdrawn—where then is your expansive counterpart? Your mood is impeccably expansive—where does the skepticism you cannot avoid find voice, if not within your confines? Only on a few happy occasions have I located such conversations between her poems—the last gave rise to my first post about her work—but yesterday I found another, and should like to report on what I overheard.

Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –

Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –
Sometimes – scalps a Tree –
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die –

Fainter Leaves – to Further Seasons –
Dumbly testify –
We – who have the Souls –
Die oftener – Not so vitally –

The poem is born in violence: the searing of a sapling, the scalping of a tree, but then nature is violent, which is precisely why it provides Dickinson such a good model for the soul. I am speaking generally, however, for here nature is no such model—indeed is set against the soul. What Dickinson shows us is the aftermath of this violence, the effect of it: it is a sort of vital death. For while the sapling or tree may die when so struck by lightning—I cannot but treat nature’s instrument here as lightning, for a reason that will be apparent once we see the second poem—it is recollected by her “Green People”.

Dickinson’s choice of the word ‘recollect’ is fascinating. It plays on two, maybe three, senses of the word. The first sense is the obvious one, the recollection that goes on in our memory all the time. Nature remembers her dead in their offspring—that is the testimony of the fainter leaves. Yet there is also a second, material sense of the word. Trees are, after all, mere collections of matter, and that collection is disrupted in the searing or scalping, but it may then be re-collected—indeed this is the mechanism of nature’s remembrance. Then there is a third sense, really a modification or enlarging of the first, if we recall Plato’s theory of recollection in this context: all knowledge is recollection of previously known truth. The new trees of further seasons are recollections of the old equally in this Platonic sense: new embodiments of an old truth, perhaps the oldest.

Through this rich notion of recollection—Dickinson condenses so much into a single word!—we get a sense of the vitality inherent in this death. Here we must make a distinction between vitality/productivity/creativity and what I will call inventiveness. Inventiveness is the production of the new, but of what is new in but a relative sense. For examples of inventiveness, in poetry for instance, encompass the inventions of new techniques. But this amounts only to rearrangements of words, and the same pattern will hold true for any example of inventiveness you care to show me. Inventiveness produces new arrangements, but hop down a level and the matter is the same. What is vital about the death of the trees, however, is not this sort of inventiveness that is fully compatible with the non-existence of anything new; rather it is the re-production of the old, its recollection. Of course this recollection does not produce identical forms—which would amount to the adherence to tradition that is the age-old opponent of inventiveness or “innovation”—and so there is room for inventiveness within it. Only now this inventiveness is not for the sake of finding the new because the old does not satisfy, is not enough, but because what exists is insufficient for the expression of the old. The vitality of the death of the trees is, as a fictitious version of Beckett might have put it, that vitality that finds the old forever untried.

In contrast to this stand the humans, those who have the souls. Dickinson carefully refers to the trees’ testimony as dumb, as silent—in short, as lacking language, that defining characteristic of we ensouled ones. Only now, instead of serving as a source of our dignity, our souls seem to be a hindrance, for we, unlike the trees, “Die oftener – Not so vitally –“. Dickinson does not expand on this, leaving only questions. Is it language that strips our death of vitality? Or if not, just what is it about our souls that strips our deaths of this vitality? And why do we die “oftener”?

Good questions all. But one question itself sears, and will sear until it is answered. Dickinson, I see you spiraling inward, see you contracting around this skeptical thought, but where is the outward movement that will redeem you?

He fumbles at your Soul

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by degrees –
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble Cool –
Deals – One – imperial – Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked Soul –

When Winds take Forests in their Paws –
The Universe – is still –


This poem is linked to the last by a word and an image. The word is primary: before a tree was scalped; now it is your naked soul. Before, the agent went unmentioned; now, it is lightning—and thus I cannot but read the other poem as detailing the aftermath of a lightning strike. The poem is a description of the process leading up to this strike—first stanza—as well as its aftermath—second stanza. There is someone, an unnamed “He” who is the source of the strike, and you, the recipient. The process is likened to him warming up at an instrument, of which you are the strings, fumbling before the real show starts. Tentativeness and mistakes characterize this period, but these “fainter Hammers” serve as preparation, and then—the moment arrives.


That is a clumsy description of the poem: it lacks sensitivity to how the poem operates. For while the poem describes, it also and more importantly enacts. At each point, what the poem says is happening in this process, the poem is also itself doing. Consider the first eight and a half lines, until “Then nearer –“. The poem itself is fumbling, not quite establishing a rhythm: we have two long sequences—20 and 19 syllables, respectively—in which no dashes occur to provide room for a breath, and each is followed by short gasps, first of six syllables after the first passage, then two quick gasps of three syllables each after the second. The poem itself cannot catch its breath.

But this is still preparation for what is to come, and this preparation soon takes definite form. For just as Dickinson says that the fainter hammers come “so slow / Your Breath has time to straighten –“, the poem itself evens out, first with a calm ten syllables in which our breath does indeed straighten. Then it slows even more as our brain bubbles cool, and we begin to feel what it describes. And then— — —the four, short, emphatic bursts in which the thunderbolt is dealt—and my own soul is scalped. Lastly, then, the soft rustling of the final stanza, and, between two dashes, the final island of stillness.


Perhaps it is language that, in the prior poem, cuts us off from vital death. If that is so, this poem seeks to remedy this loss, for the process it causes in the reader is just such a vital death. Why do I say this? The poem is linked to the previous by a word and an image—I cannot take that as accidental, even if the linkage really amounts only to the word. Do I have more conclusive evidence of a genuine link? I do not, except the shivers that dance up and down my spine, the bubbling that cooled and hardened and left a stillness to everything, the woods in which I read the poem, rustled by the paws of wind. This is an old truth I sense; the question is, can I give it form.


Emily Dickinson’s Paradox of Death

2013/01/06 1 comment

[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.