memory awake

Remorse is memory awake,
Her companies astir,—
A presence of departed acts
At window and at door.

Its past set down before the soul,
And lighted with a match,
Perusal to facilitate
Of its condensed despatch.

Remorse is cureless,—the disease
Not even God can heal;
For ’t is His institution,—
The complement of hell.

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating poem. The notion that “Remorse is memory awake” rings very true–it’s when we remember that we regret, repent. Remorse sounds like an army in the first stanza, “Her companies astir,” and is also the “presence” of that which we thought was “departed.”

This all seems pretty straightforward and apt. It’s in the final stanza that things get really interesting. The speaker claims first that “Remorse is cureless,” which may be, but then goes on to argue that even God cannot heal it. This questioning of God’s omnipotence is very Dickinson. She then goes on to say that God cannot heal it because it is his own creation and “The complement of hell.”

There is so much going on here. God is powerless against remorse. God created remorse. Remorse is God’s, and is the complement of hell. A complement, according to Merriam-Webster, is ” something that fills up, completes, or makes better or perfect.” So remorse is the perfection of hell, completing it.

Rouge et noir

Soul, wilt thou toss again?
By just such a hazard
Hundreds have lost, indeed,
But tens have won an all.

Angels’ breathless ballot
Lingers to record thee;
Imps in eager caucus
Raffle for my soul.

~Emily Dickinson

The poem’s title, of course, is not Dickinson’s, but it’s evocative. This poem itself strikes me as very different from her usual style and theme. Though Dickinson often delves into darkness, the image of demonic little imps eagerly vying for her soul is a different shade of darkness.

Is she writing about herself? or is she being more philosophical, more general? I wonder what inspired this poem. It’s interesting that in the very first line, the speaker acknowledges that she’s already gambled her soul, at least once–“Soul, wilt thou toss again?” How did the first toss go? If you lose your soul once, can you gamble it again? If you win it once, is it possible to lose it after that?

It’s a strange poem, and raises so many more questions than it answers.

“Pale sustenance”

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf


The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –


Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –


I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You – could not –


And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Death’s privilege?


Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ –
That New Grace


Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –


They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –


Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise


And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame –


And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –


So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

~Emily Dickinson

The only way this poem could be more Emily Dickinson would be if it had a bird and some flowers in it. Otherwise, it seems to hit all of what I am coming to think of as the Dickinson notes: pathos, unanswered questions, metaphors galore, paradox, passion depicted in terms of cold rather than heat, and a healthy helping of blasphemy.

This poem devastates from the first line–“I cannot live with you”–and then piles on the sorrow. Life is behind a locked shelf, but “our” life, her life, is locked in that shelf. Despite being locked in, it is old, weak, unpleasing. The beloved could not wait for her, and the speaker could not rise with the beloved–this just gets more and more tragic, in that quiet, Dickinsonian way.

This brings us to the really fun part. The reason the speaker cannot rise with the beloved is that, to her, Jesus would pale in comparison. The beloved served heaven–or tried to, she qualifies–but she could not. She even suggests that she would cast off heaven to follow him into hell. She takes this a step further to say that she would become hell to herself if not near him after death.

Then comes the paradox–“So we must meet apart”–with only a door ajar between them, a space wide as oceans. After all the blaspheming, she then suggests that prayer connects them, and finally ends, in peak Emily style, on the word “despair.”

It’s a gut-wrenching poem, but also meticulously executed. There’s much to examine here, and I’ve only touched on a few of the points that fascinate me. Of the poems we’ve read so far this year, this one strikes me as perhaps the most emblematic of Dickinson’s brave and passionate style. What do you think?