Hi all --
There's a lot going on right now and I do not want to distract from it. We're watching an army openly attack hospitals. The frontrunner for next POTUS has not been subtle about throwing anyone he likes in camps and using the military to crush dissent. I cannot tell you that we need a commentary about a poem of Emily Dickinson normally assigned to high schoolers.
All I can say is that I've been thinking about this poem and why it's so absorbing. And I've been thinking about authenticity, especially in the face of empty moral posturing. It seems to me that our leaders have learned to say the things we want to hear and nothing else. I am finding it difficult to fathom the contempt for children this world has as well as a politics that knows nothing but anger. I never thought I'd see a world dominated this thoroughly by big babies who have the magic power of making the unacceptable seem rational. But that's where we are.
I don't think reading a poem well makes one more mature. I do think those of us who want to leave a legacy have to grapple with questions not unlike Dickinson's. Still, I can't tell you that a legacy, right now, is on mine or anyone else's mind. We're seeing our home tear itself apart in ways too awful to comprehend.
...the style of that solitude
-James Baldwin on Emily Dickinson
Every so often I encounter a critic proclaiming a work of art or literature foundational to Western culture or civilization. Their claim isn't always situated in elitist nationalism or big-name worship. A few establish how someone created something so resonant, so full of riches, that it had to be explored and enhanced by many others, including those considered outside the West.
I'm still dubious. I am sure, though, that Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death" enjoys rarefied company. Recently, I've been thinking about how Heidegger's rejection of the notion of culture could work. What would it mean to go back to an unmediated encounter with Being, where we did not let a favorite song completely replace our own words, say, in the middle of heartbreak? Or where Death refused any religious trappings? I see Dickinson's poem as beginning with Anglo-American idiom, then stretching to questions of solitude and mastery. To put it another way, the roots of the poem do not circle back to other cultural artifacts as much as they explore a terror fundamental to being human.
To be clear, I don't believe Heidegger's ideas about culture are entirely valid. They act best as criticism of moments where cultural phenomena are little more than vapid fandom. However, "Because I could not stop for Death" stands monumental. Authenticity, greatness, and a closeness to the question of Being coincide, and a gate to the origins--how it is--could possibly open.
Because I could not stop for Death (Franklin 479) Emily Dickinson Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality. We slowly drove – He knew no haste And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility – We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess – in the Ring – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – We passed the Setting Sun – Or rather – He passed Us – The Dews drew quivering and Chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle – We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground – Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses' Heads Were toward Eternity –
"Because I could not stop for Death — / He kindly stopped for me" has a peculiarly American flavor. You can hear the undertones of "I was too busy to notice I was dying. I got all the widgets made." You might also hear the words of Joe Pesci's Tommy in Goodfellas: "You were late for your own f__ing funeral."
In America, validation occurs through productivity unlike any other time or place. Celebrating the break from toil is itself sacred; it's funny that It's A Wonderful Life takes time to explain how banks work. Die Hard really is a Christmas movie. What is missing is a sense of the sacred as overwhelming, as something we are a tiny part of. The sacred demands awe and fear. It is not simply relief the system works.
Quietly and pointedly, "He kindly stopped for me" breaks through to the questions we want to avoid. We're fine with hearing we're too busy for death, that we need to stop and smell the roses once in a while. What creates more significant discomfort is an erotic relation to Death. That what we love—maybe even the possibility we can love—is tied to our finitude more than our efforts or accomplishment. This may sound strange, but consider how, for example, justice is intimately tied up with our passing away. Death is an event in that context. It occasions a judgment about the entirety of another's life: either they were a good person who we can emulate or not.
How Death relates to love is more difficult to parse. Dickinson mentions a third party. "The Carriage held just but Ourselves — / And Immortality." The possibility of Immortality looms over both Death and her. It's a morbid nod to poets of ages past who proclaimed they would be quoted forever and ever. But it is also the larger question of whether anything we do lasts. Dickinson's framing does not give an answer, though it contributes a powerful thought. Any thought of Immortality has to go through Death. You must put away both "labor and leisure" for "his Civility." There's an openness which you have to prepare to receive, and it parallels how we encounter love.
Dickinson relentlessly uses "We" throughout the middle of the poem. "We slowly drove," "We passed the school," "We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain," "We passed the Setting Sun," "We paused before a House." The "We" has to break apart. Death is no lover, Immortality has to be reconfigured for mere mortals. There is only an I.
That "I," in conjunction with Death and Immortality, does something few of us do. The "I" writes a first draft of her history. She recalls children at recess, fields so cultivated they are almost reflective, and the "Setting Sun." You can say this is a draft awash in nostalgia, and it is, but two things for me stand out: 1) the aforementioned presence of Death and Immortality 2) the draft having a certain completeness. When I think of people consumed by nostalgia, they typically don't have an entire alternative history of their own lives written out. They have moments where they know they were comfortable, and those moments feel right to them, so the rest of what they say bends toward those moments.
Because the first draft tries to be comprehensive, it fails. "He passed Us," Dickinson intones in the middle of the poem. Was Death ever in the Carriage? Was Immortality, for that matter? The opening and the setting are completely undone. Yet the Carriage has to proceed, as it does in the fifth stanza, because that's the only tool we have to understand things. "He passed Us" leaves Dickinson cold and unprotected. There is no warmth of any sort after it is said. Garments such as gowns and scarves are reduced to their material as the world comes apart.
In the face of the world coming apart, Dickinson continues with her image of the carriage. That, I believe, is the fundamental action of this poem. And that is where she confronts something not unlike the fundamental question of metaphysics, "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" Take a look at the next-to-last stanza and the description of a house so rotted that it is nearly indistinguishable from the landscape:
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
In "Building Dwelling Thinking" Heidegger talks at length about an old farmhouse in the Black Forest which is attuned to the natural world around it. It uses the mountain slope to its advantage; it is open to meadows in the spring; the roof shields against snow and storms and allows for chambers uniquely human. The house is a shelter for generations, he says. In contrast, Dickinson does a deconstruction of any dwelling in these few lines. It feels like any house is actually built upon sand, with the only difference being some are washed away completely while others are able to display their decay.
A dialogue opens regarding the irregular persistence of being. Some beings persist enough to give us a glimpse of other ways of living, maybe even a future. Heidegger, however strangely, serves as an optimist for our purposes. Dickinson, on the other hand, wonders if the "Ground" is all there is. "[A] House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground" points to a collapse beyond the House. Is there room for distinction when wondering if this is all there is? Is Being nothing but swelling?
Dickinson offers the only answer available. There are images, there is experience, and we have to navigate both for whatever it is we seek. Poetic mastery, authorship of our own lives, is all we have. The realization of the enormity of eternity is both frightening and empowering. What we do within eternity is nothing, and there is little chance to do even that. But we do work within eternity:
Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –
It's tempting to say Dickinson is dragged along by the horses. They won't stop and she is trapped. This is obviously true. However, consider "I dwell in Possibility." When we put that together with this poem, Dickinson has witnessed, in some sense, the destruction of her own house and is not flinching. The poetic self, in this case, aims at courage. Horses do not witness.