We wondered at our blindness

Her final summer was it,
And yet we guessed it not;
If tenderer industriousness
Pervaded her, we thought

A further force of life 5
Developed from within,—
When Death lit all the shortness up,
And made the hurry plain.

We wondered at our blindness,—
When nothing was to see 10
But her Carrara guide-post,—
At our stupidity,

When, duller than our dulness,
The busy darling lay,
So busy was she, finishing, 15
So leisurely were we!

~Emily Dickinson

What strikes me most strongly about this poem is the contrast. There are layers of it–contrasts between life and death, busyness and inactivity–but particularly the contrast between knowing and not-knowing.

“We guessed it not”–the speaker, speaking for a collective “we,” repeatedly returns to the notion that “we” didn’t know what was coming, but implies that the now-deceased did. Words like “stupidity” and “duller than our dulness” underscore and even levy judgment on this not-knowing. While the subject of the poem apparently knew she was dying and used this knowledge as impetus to achieve more than ever, more lovingly than ever, those around her failed to notice the cause of her activity.

How could they have known she was dying, particularly if she was so active to the last? I think that at least part of what this poem is teasing out is the common experience of blaming ourselves in the wake of a dear one’s passing. If only we had known, we should have seen it coming, we should have behaved differently…a thousand regrets and what-ifs crop up by which we torment ourselves.

Often Dickinson writes from the perspective of the deceased. Here, the dead woman isn’t really the point of the poem–it’s the way in which those who survive her are doubly wounded by her passing.We