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30 October 2011

If this is “fading”

If this is “fading”
Oh let me immediately “fade”!
If this is “dying”
Bury – me, in such a shroud of red!
If this is “sleep,”
On such a night
How proud to shut the eye!
Good evening, gentle Fellow men!
Peacock presumes to die!
                                                              - F119 (1859)  120

Dickinson is playing on common terms for the end of day. We speak of daylight fading, of the dying of the day. Night and sleep are both used figuratively for death. Dickinson would have taken all this from Shakespeare if from nowhere else.
            She must have had glorious sunsets in Amherst, for she includes them in numerous poems. I wonder if the sunsets there are still so glorious? At any rate, the poet watches the sun set and pens her series of ironic statements. The brilliant sunset is far from “fading,” the day is far from “dying” as long as the “shroud of red” endures. The word “shroud” nicely introduces the idea of death that comes in the last line. If you were wrapped in such a shroud, you might feel quite the “Peacock” too!  And as the day finally dies, so the poet “presumes to die” as well. The word “presumes” works well here as it implies a certain cocky boldness (as in having the presumption to die).
            It’s a lovely poem. The “Oh let me” of the second line injects just the right note of longing. The three repetitions of “If this is” give a pleasing parallel structure. The feminine endings of “fading” and “dying” with their tapering emphasis do indeed sound faded. These are contrasted with the strength of “fade!” and “red!” At the end, Dickinson does a neat trick with “gentle Fellow men”: it wouldn’t work for her as a female to say “fellow gentlemen” but it is fine in her day to use the universal “men” in referring to herself.

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