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06 September 2011

One dignity delays for all—

One dignity delays for all—
One mitred Afternoon—
None can avoid this purple—
None evade this Crown!

Coach, it insures, and footmen—
Chamber, and state, and throng—
Bells, also, in the village
As we ride grand along!

What dignified Attendants!
What service when we pause!
How loyally at parting
Their hundred hats they raise!

Her pomp surpassing ermine
When simple You, and I,
Present our meek escutcheon
And claim the rank to die!
                                                          - F 77 (1859)  98

Ah, haven’t we all wanted to get a glimpse of our own funeral? They must have been quite grand in Amhurst, for Dickinson describes the funeral of ‘simple You, and I’ in terms reserved for heads of state today. The coffin would be born in a coach with footmen, and as it made its stately progress the cemetery the village bells would ring. A hundred people would attend, raising their hats in final salutation.
            The poet presents death as a coronation into the lordly afterlife. The Afternoon is ‘mitred’ as would be a bishop in h is sacred headdress. There is the obligatory crown and purple garments. The pomp of death exceeds even that attendant on kings, ‘ermine’ being a metonymy for royalty. There is something like a ticket taker, and the newly dead must present identification before they can claim their ‘rank to die’.
            That last phrase puts a bit of a twist on the familiar idea that death is the great leveler bringing kings to worms’ mouths just as efficiently as beggars. Here the meek join the noble.
            Although most of the poem is written in iambs, the last two lines of the first stanza begin trochaically. The effect is to emphasize “None”: everyone gets to get the crown! Dickinson also crafts the next three lines with trochees to open: ‘Coach,” Chamber,” and “Bells”; this adds a sense of action as the deceased ‘ride grand along!’.
          All in all, the poem is conventional for her milieu in that it envisions the afterlife as more important and more glorious than the earthly life. I would guess that this is another comfort poem she intended for the bereaved. I wonder if she wrote some of these in advance to have ready when someone she knew died.


  1. Do you think that in the fifth stanza she was envisioning, and possibly and even requesting, her wish to be buried in her backyard garden?

    1. It certainly foreshadows her clearly-specified humble burial years later. But I believe she was buried in a graveyard rather than her backyard.

  2. Death was a mystery to ED. She observed people dying and watched carefully for some evidence of a soul departing, but she never saw anything except daisies growing on the gravesite. She never accepted Christ as her savior and did not attend church. There is nothing in this poem about afterlife or a coronation or a ticket-taker, other than Death.

    The poem ‘One dignity delays for all’ tells us that Death waits for all of us until our ordained time. No one can avoid Death; none can escape. A death involves a hearse and pallbearers, a casket, a viewing, mourners, tolling bells at the village church, a procession to the cemetery, attendants dressed in black, final words at graveside, and everyone saying goodbye in earnest with hats doffed. The poem also tells us that Death celebrates royally even when common folk like us present our names to Her and earn the rank of dead. The rest is silence.