In this poem, the speaker describes herself as lifeless, though of course she is alive. Dickinson seems to be describing a deep depression, the kind that makes one feel dead while still technically living.
This, I think, is the official take on this poem. What’s interesting to me, though, obsessed as I am at the moment with all things spooky and eerie, is all the details that suggest that she really is not alive–that we’re listening to a ghost.
She tells us that she did breathe, once, but is now “removed from air.” In the second stanza she insists that she looks so alive that one “must descend” into the cells of her lungs to realize that she is not, in fact, actually breathing. She is a pantomime of human life, her “bellows” “cool” to the touch.
As the death-poems go, this one is pretty hopeful. The
notion of death as a dialogue is an evocative one, though the metaphor quickly
gets mixed in the third line. In the first two lines, death is the dialogue
between spirit and flesh. In the third line, however, Death is a participant in
the dialogue, and is talking with the Spirit. There is an implicit equation
between Death and dust, death and body, as opposed to Spirit.
The dialogue begins with an imperious command from Death to
the Spirit to “Dissolve,” and the dialogue quickly becomes an argument. The
Spirit refuses the order, Death doubts this, and argues “from the ground,”
implying that Death now inhabits the “dust” of flesh and that Spirit is already
ascending to “another trust.”
The Spirit refuses to be drawn into the argument. Death is
arrogant and bossy, but the Spirit finds expression in actions rather than
words. It turns away, and lays off the trappings of the flesh.
It’s a very Puritan reading, this notion of the body as
dust. It’s the reading many of us have been taught to accept—that flesh is
somehow other than us, that our bodies are just shells for our souls.
The body in this poem feels superfluous—while we’re told initially that Death
is a conversation between flesh and soul, we quickly learn that the body here
is silent—it’s Death and the Spirit that get to speak. The physical is almost
extraneous, not really a part of the deceased, but merely “An overcoat of