If excellence is dead, then the sun itself is superfluous, the speaker posits in the first stanza. In fact, excellence is dead, so the sun is superfluous, she argues.
The dense middle stanza touches on faith and doubt–a faith just barely pried from the jaws of doubt, it seems. Is it excellence itself the speaker doubts? Or the excellence of a particular person or being or power? We cannot know for sure.
The final stanza exchanges the famous fallen excellence and the sun for anonymous yet numberless stars, a different kind of light salvaged from the darkness.
Letting go of the familiar isn’t easy. It’s far more comfortable to cling to whatever we have than to move on, reach for something else. I think that’s what Dickinson is getting at here. Our lives are a series of separations, losses, partings, all in preparation or foreshadowing of that one final loss, the one that will change everything forever.
This World is not Conclusion. A Species stands beyond – Invisible, as Music – But positive, as Sound – It beckons, and it baffles – Philosophy, dont know – And through a Riddle, at the last – Sagacity, must go – To guess it, puzzles scholars – To gain it, Men have borne Contempt of Generations And Crucifixion, shown – Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies – Blushes, if any see – Plucks at a twig of Evidence – And asks a Vane, the way – Much Gesture, from the Pulpit – Strong Hallelujahs roll – Narcotics cannot still the Tooth That nibbles at the soul –
The mystery of what comes after–this seems like a very Emily sort of poem, of wondering. The bulk of the poem seems to be contemplating the riddle of what follows this life–but the final lines throw it a bit up in the air. What is “the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul”? Through the rest of the poem, Dickinson seems to be expressing faith, if imperfect. But the last lines throw it all into question. Does she mean that the life after this one plucks at the soul, calling it? Or does she mean, by nibbling, that something is consuming the soul?
Ultimately, the poem, like its subject, is a sort of riddle. Dickinson is describing a mystery, and the point, perhaps, is not for us to know what that mystery is, but through her language to feel the wondering, the doubt, the confusion, the mystery itself.
Things 1 and 2 are on break, and are clamoring to use my computer, so I’ll keep this one short. This poem calls to mind the English carol “In praise of Christmas,” with its emphasis on the power of music and togetherness to drive away the dark cold of winter. The lyrics are below. May you be warm and safe this winter’s day, surrounded by love.
All hail to the days that merit more praise Than all of the rest of the year And welcome the nights that double delights As well for the poor as the peer Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend That doth but the best that he may Forgetting old wrongs with carols and songs To drive the cold winter away
‘Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined To think of small injuries now If wrath be to seek, do not lend her thy cheek Nor let her inhabit thy brow Cross out of thy books malevolent looks Both beauty and youth’s decay And wholly consort with mirth and with sport To drive the cold winter away
This time of the year is spent in good cheer And neighbors together do meet To sit by the fire with friendly desire Each other in love to greet Old grudges forgot are put in the pot All sorrows aside they lay The old and the young doth carol this song To drive the cold winter away
When Christmas tide comes in like a bride With holly and ivy clad Twelve days in the year much mirth and good cheer In every household is had The country guise is then to devise Some gambols of Christmas play Whereat the young men do the best that they can To drive the cold winter away
Going to heaven! I don’t know when, Pray do not ask me how,— Indeed, I ’m too astonished To think of answering you! Going to heaven!— How dim it sounds! And yet it will be done As sure as flocks go home at night Unto the shepherd’s arm!
Perhaps you ’re going too! Who knows? If you should get there first, Save just a little place for me Close to the two I lost! The smallest “robe” will fit me, And just a bit of “crown”; For you know we do not mind our dress When we are going home.
I ’m glad I don’t believe it, For it would stop my breath, And I ’d like to look a little more At such a curious earth! I am glad they did believe it Whom I have never found Since the mighty autumn afternoon I left them in the ground.
There are so many interesting things happening in this poem. First off, it’s unlike many, many other Dickinson poems about death in that it’s neither dark and foreboding nor eagerly anticipating death.
Secondly, the speaker is addressing someone. She exclaims at the beginning, and then asks not to be asked more questions, as if she’s responding to someone who’s just posed one. Who is the speaker talking to? To an actual person? To herself? It seems impossible to say. There are lots of exclamation marks in that first stanza, too, to underscore her astonishment at being asked this question–and admittedly, if there is an actual person posing it, it’s a weird one. The speaker says it sounds “dim,” uncertain, suggesting that the idea of heaven is a long way off, but then acknowledges that “it must be done.” It’s a funny sort of resignation. Oh, heaven? Yeah, I guess we have to do that. Okay.
The second stanza begins humorously. “Perhaps you’re going too!” Is this an Emily burn? Hey, maybe you’ll eventually make it to heaven! “Who knows?” But then the tone abruptly shifts to seriousness, with the speaker asking the person she’s addressing to save a place for her near two loved ones who have preceded her in death. But then again, she shifts tone, and starts pondering her dress–what to wear to heaven? Just a bit of robe, just a small crown. It’s as if she’s trying to distract herself from the thought of her losses.
But she can’t stave off such thoughts for long. In the third stanza, she insists that she doesn’t believe, because she wants to stay here to “look a little more/At such a curious Earth!” It’s as if she’s an observer from another world looking in from the outside. As if, perhaps, despite her insistence to the contrary, she (and all of us) belong to heaven and are only sojourning here. And then she shifts again, back to her lost loved ones. She’s glad that they believed, even if she doesn’t. The speaker ends with a stark image of loss, of an autumn afternoon when she buried them.
There is a lot going on here–the poem is a swirl of emotions and images. It mimics the turmoil in the speaker’s own mind, the uncertainty of her thoughts. It seems as if she’s grappling with the notion of mortality and immortality. She doesn’t want to think about them, and yet can’t keep herself from doing so.
This one is challenging to me. I’m not sure what Dickinson is getting at–it’s certainly metaphorical, whatever it is. I can’t imagine she actually wants to go gallivanting all over New England, pushing wine on dying people.
The central image that arises in this poem, and which must be key to understanding it, is that of thirst. In the first stanza, Dickinson describes “lips long parching” to which she offers a drink.
The next few stanzas offer up more subtle references to thirst. In the second stanza, we get a sharp contrast between eyes “Crackling with fever” and the speaker’s own “brimming eyes”–a contrast between heat and liquid, hot and cool. The third stanza gives us hands grasping the glass, the subject of the speaker’s ministrations having died unsated, thirst unslaked despite the proximity of the drink. The fourth stanza offers the image of the frozen dead–moisture locked away in frost. At this point, they are surely beyond the transformative power of wine or any liquid.
With the fifth stanza, we get back to very direct descriptions and mentions of thirst. “Some other thirsty there may be,” the speaker imagines, “And so I always bear the cup.” And then the thirst and liquid language pours out, as the speaker envisions the “drop” that will “slake” someone else’s “thirst.”
She ends with a Biblical reference, which feels a bit strange–it’s very dry in contrast to the liquid language of the rest of the poem. Almost a platitude–except, of course, this is Dickinson, so she is shaping it to her own ends. Exactly what those are, I’m still unsure about. What exactly is the wine she’s offering? And why? She is trying to help the dying–what is the aid she offers? This one is going to need more mulling over, no pun intended, if I’m going to grasp exactly what she’s getting at. What exactly is the thirst she’s talking about? And how would the reclusive Dickinson have thought to address this?
Perhaps the answer is poetry. Whether or not she was shy, as the old myth of the poet proclaims, Dickinson certainly wasn’t out evangelizing to and fro across the Massachusetts countryside. What she was doing was writing. So maybe her poems, her words, are the “unaccustomed wine.” I wonder if she knew they would reach their readers after her death–she must have at least thought of this when she tucked them away in a drawer, tied into neat packets.
Dickinson’s poetry is certainly “unaccustomed”–it definitely would have been to readers at the time. Her attitudes, her style, her unique twist on her subjects–all of these things make her work stand alone, stand out. Maybe this is a poem about her poetry, about a poetic vision of the world that the then-living world wasn’t ready for.