“Though I than He – may longer live / He longer must – than I – / For I have but the power to kill, / Without – the power to die –“
This is the final stanza of “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun –,” and it poses questions about the ties between life and death, and how these two opposites define each other. The two figures in these lines are the gun and its master. The gun is the speaker, and says that while she will probably live longer than her master, he must live longer than her.
This is because the gun does not have the power to die. Though it will not die before its master, one cannot be truly alive if one cannot die, so her master in fact has more life than she does, defined because he can and will die. The power to kill, which the gun does have, is not enough to make it alive. While destruction is necessary to define life and creation, pure destruction lacks life just as no destruction—lack of death—does.
“Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity”
This final stanza from “Because I could not stop for Death –“ embodies what the poem does as a whole—namely turn the normally fearful prospect of death into a friendly guide on a journey to the afterlife. Here we learn that the carriage ride that the rest of the poem describes actually happened centuries before the speaker tells us about it. Yet time has essentially lost all meaning since her death; these centuries have felt shorter than the day that she died.
But although this is the day that she compares those centuries too, these comparisons do not infuse her definition or description of it. Instead, she defines it as the day she first realized that death was taking her towards eternity, immortality. Yet this last stanza seems to make that moment of realization, the moment of finally believing in the afterlife, more important than the afterlife itself. As she describes it, centuries have barely felt a day -- she gives no hint of the expanse of time, only refers back to that moment of realization.
“There’s a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons – / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes –“
This opening stanza contains many surprises. The opening two lines lead the reader to believe that this will be a poem admiring some natural phenomenon, like, perhaps, “There’s a Light in Spring –” does. The third line immediately contradicts this expectation, however. This light is not beautiful or comforting, it “oppresses.” This is certainly not a common verb to use for something usually associated with good, with happiness, with growth.
The complications do not stop here, however. The simile that Dickinson uses to explain this oppression is that it is “like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes –.” “Cathedral Tunes”—hymns—are not something one usually associates with oppression. Religion, specifically, the act of having to participate in what is essentially a group prayer, with no freedom to sing one’s own tune or use one’s own words, feels limiting and oppressive to this speaker.
The use of the word “Heft” provides a clue to all of this. When this poem was edited for its first publication, they editor changed “Heft” to “weight,” because it fits the rhyme scheme better, and at first glance seems to be a synonym. Dickinson’s choice to use “Heft,” and not “weight,” then, is significant. “Weight” connotes only a downward force, a pressing down, whereas “Heft” connotes an upward effort, although one facing an opposing force. Thus while hymns and this light are oppressing, it is an oppression that also has a lift to it.
“And Something’s odd – within – / That person that I was – / And this One – do not feel the same – / Could it be Madness – this?”
This is the final stanza of “The first Day’s Night had come—,” and shows the speaker’s identity almost completely dispersed. Before this stanza, we saw the speaker’s voice divide into speaker, soul, and brain. She also, however, was capable of communicating with those other parts.
In this stanza, however, we see only the speaker, no longer able to communicate with the other sides of her identity, no longer fighting this dissolution of that identity. Here she refers to her past, united self, as “That person that I was –.” This is a deeply impersonal way to talk about one’s own past, showing the great disconnect between her past self and her current self, as well as between the different sides of her identity.
The ending of the poem shows that she has in fact given up on recovering from this madness. She, for the first time, acknowledges that this separating of identity may be madness. But this acknowledging is only in the form of a question, and a hesitant one. No matter what answer is given to her, we cannot imagine this hesitant, uncertain person fighting to regain her sanity.
“I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it’s true –“
This quote from “I like a look of Agony,” emphasizes how Dickinson values truth above all else in her poetry. She likes “a look of Agony,” because to her it means that the person experiencing that agony is exposing his or herself truly. This allows Dickinson to feel closer to this person than she otherwise would, since she obviously does not have high expectations for most people’s honesty.
If this philosophy is taken to apply to poetry as well, it can be said that Dickinson’s tendency towards dark themes—grief, death, pain—may be because she trusts the truth in these things more than she trusts the truth in happiness. There is some deeper truth to them, and the fact that one cannot fake them -- one must experience them to perform them -- means that her poetic performance of agony must be true.
“Much Madness is divinest Sense – / To a discerning Eye –“
These two lines seem to be critical to a meaningful understanding of Dickinson’s life and her poetry. Dickinson was often considered mad, and was an infamous figure in her community. This was because, after her late twenties, she stopped leaving her house, and eventually would see no one but her immediate family, letting other visitors talk to her only through a screen. She also dressed only in white.
This was not in fact madness, however, but sense—her time was taxed greatly with taking care of the house and her mother, and her choice to retire from society was the only reason that she was able to give so much time to her poetry. Her white dresses, too, were the easiest to launder, and so wasted her time less.
These lines certainly apply to her poetry, too. In their early publication, her poems were often criticized for their disregard for the formal traditions and standards of the day. This apparent “Madness,” however, actually predicted the path poetry would take many years after Dickinson’s lifetime, and quickly after her death came to be appreciated for the genius that it was. So here too, apparent “Madness” was actually sense—she sacrificed the majority’s standards and traditions, and in doing so produced great art.
“Himself has but to will / And easy as a Star / Abolish his Captivity -- / And laugh – No more have I –“
These are the closing lines of “They shut me up in Prose –,” and they describe both the bird and the speaker’s ability to free themselves. For the speaker, no matter how she is physically restrained or given rules and traditions that she is expected to follow, her mind cannot be contained or constrained or restricted. The attempts to control her, in fact, only inflame her passions more, and inspire her rebellion.
That she enjoys this act of rebelling for its own sake is clear. Here the “And laugh –“ feels very closely tied to the escaping—it seems to almost be a necessary part of it. Thus this attitude of disdain for her captors, this pleasure in eluding them, is part of the ability to gain this freedom, as well as its pleasures—and she could not have this to enjoy had they not tried to contain her in the first place.
“But the least push of Joy / Breaks up my feet -- / And I tip – drunken – “
These lines of “I can wade Grief –“ emphasize the danger of happiness to the speaker, who in this poem can be read to be representative of a poet. The speaker is used to grief, can be steady in it, wading pools without the slightest stumble. But “Joy” trips her up, and is very quickly made clear to be something worse in this poem than it might usually be, as the metaphor representing it is a “push.”
Joy’s ability to make the speaker stumble is compared to alcohol—it is “the New Liquor” that makes the speaker “tip –drunken –.” Thus whereas the speaker might be happier, might be out of the pools of grief, she has become intoxicated, and this intoxication has made her lose her ability to walk, and, ostensibly, to view the world with the clarity required of poetry, and given by grief.
“And Breaths were gathering firm / For that last Onset – when the King / Be witnessed – in the Room –“
These lines from “I heard a Fly buzz –“ set up the expectations for a death scene like the one in this poem, in Dickinson’s time. As a person lay dying, they were usually surrounded by their family and close friends, and as they prepared to pass on they would will away their material goods, and then there would usually be a moment of climax when they would witness some kind of heavenly being coming to take them to the afterlife, and they would describe it for the others in the room before dying.
These lines set up that expectation, or at least make it clear that that is what all the onlookers to the speaker’s death expect to happen. Thus when the fly interrupts the scene, and takes all of the speaker’s attention, this is a kind of replacement for the heavenly vision one would usually have. This fly, that represents the most physical aspects of death, is the antithesis to a heavenly agent.
And yet its physicality is so entrancing that the speaker notices nothing but it until she loses consciousness and dies. In this way she works against the time’s expectations, and shows that death is a physical process and not just a journeying from one life to the next.
“’Tis Kingdoms – afterward – they say / In perfect – pauseless Monarchy -- / Whose Prince – is Son of None –“
These lines from “Behind Me – dips Eternity –“ show that the speaker does not have as much faith in the afterlife, or at least in the Christian afterlife, as she may seem to. The first line of these three ends with “they say,” which qualifies what comes before and after with doubt—there is no proof of any of this except for the word of an unspecified and nameless “they.”
In addition, while this “Monarchy” may be “perfect,” it is also “pauseless,” which is not something that can be comprehended in this life, and thus carries with it a certain fear. And this monarchy’s “Prince – is Son of None –.“ The internal rhyme of “Son” and “None” carries with it an emphasis on the emptiness of “None,” thus giving this afterlife a certain emptiness to it.
Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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