The pantomime

I breathed enough to learn the trick,
And now, removed from air,
I simulate the breath so well,
That one, to be quite sure

The lungs are stirless, must descend Among the cunning cells,
And touch the pantomime himself.
How cool the bellows feels!

~Emily Dickinson

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.

Sounds like a ghost to me.


’T IS whiter than an Indian pipe,
’T is dimmer than a lace;
No stature has it, like a fog,
When you approach the place.

Not any voice denotes it here,
Or intimates it there;
A spirit, how doth it accost?
What customs hath the air?

This limitless hyperbole
Each one of us shall be:
‘T is drama, if (hypothesis)
It be not tragedy!

~Emily Dickinson
An “Indian pipe” in the woods behind my house.

I just got back from a conference in New York and am struggling to keep my head above water both at work and at home, so today you get a poem and a picture. Enjoy!

An overcoat of clay

DEATH is a dialogue between
The spirit and the dust.
“Dissolve,” says Death. The Spirit, “Sir,
I have another trust.”

Death doubts it, argues from the ground.
The Spirit turns away,
Just laying off, for evidence,
An overcoat of clay.

~Emily Dickinson

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 clay.”