Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems Summary and Analysis
"Behind Me -- dips Eternity --"
The first three lines of this poem set up the image of Dickinson’s speaker standing in the short space between the eternity that preceded her (“Behind Me – dips Eternity –“) and the immortality which will follow (“Before Me – Immortality”) this brief interlude between—that is, her life (“Myself – the Term between –“).
When the world is seen this way, death, instead of a ominous end, becomes a more quiet “Drift.” Instead of envisioning it as the common trope of nightfall, she sees dawn itself as death—life is the “Eastern Gray” that just precedes dawn, and death is the rising of the sun such that that life dissolves “into Dawn away.”
The next stanza envisions what this immortality will look like. According to the common Christian belief (“they say”), heaven is “Kingdoms” in “perfect – pauseless Monarchy.” The “Prince,” or Christ, (“Son of None” because his father is divine, not human). This “Dynasty” is “Dateless” because it goes on infinitely.
According to this system of belief, then, the speaker can look forward to a miraculous future (“’Tis Miracle before Me – then –“), and she has the miracle of eternity behind her. She then envisions life as a reflection of the moon on the ocean (“between – / A Crescent in the Sea –“), surrounded by the midnight darkness of the ocean and the midnight darkness of the sky, which is chaotic (“And Maelstrom – in the Sky –“).
In this poem, somewhat unlike many of her other poems dealing with death, Dickinson presents death as so omnipresent a force that it is life that is the rupture in the otherwise continuous, eternal dark immortality. Her life, her identity, is the only thing that prevents an uninterrupted endlessness, but with the sense she creates of “Eternity” and “Immortality” pressing on her throughout the poem, this feels more and more like a blip, rather than like an important life which has any effect on the world, and her choice of the clinical word “Term” to describe it underscores this.
“Eternity” and “Immortality,” however, lose their sense in the way that Dickinson presents them, which either weakens them or makes them more menacing than the speaker ostensibly thinks they are. They don’t have a beginning or an end (“Dateless”) and they are uninterrupted by events (“pauseless”), thus there are no markers by which to comprehend them. They are also yoked together with each other because of the parallel structure of their presentation in the first two lines, thus they lose their distinctions, and their meanings are weakened.
In addition, Dickinson uses repetition to make her descriptions of these things feel less meaningful, for in repetition, words often lose their power. For example, “Midnight” and “Midnight,” all the repetitions of “Himself” in the second stanza, and “Miracle” and “Miracle,” as well as the constant repetitions of line structure (the first two lines of the first and last stanzas, for example). She also throws doubt on her depiction of “Immortality,” first by separating it from herself, and making it a common assumption—“they say”—and by describing Christ with an internal rhyme that emphasizes vacancy—“Son of None.”
This doubtful depiction of the afterlife is followed by the line “’Tis Miracle before Me – then –,” but the “then” throws this statement into doubt, because what caused it is also doubted. Thus although the speaker in this poem poem seems sure of her position on the afterlife, and death is presented melodically, with lots of alliteration and rhyming (“Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray, / Dissolving into Dawn away”), the poem itself actually exhibits an anxious doubt about what, if anything, will finally follow death.
This then makes the speaker’s ostensible calm about the death that she spends the whole poem facing (for it is “before” her) seem more like a possibly failing attempt to soothe or placate herself. The last stanza, once we see that she is not as sure about the “Miracle” as she pretends to be, thus becomes a rather bleak one. She envisions herself as a crescent moon surrounded by unending, overpowering darkness, a darkness that contains not the peace of a gently dissolving dawn, but chaos (“And Maelstrom – in the Sky –“).
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