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07 November 2011

Safe in their alabaster chambers –

Safe in their alabaster chambers –
Untouched by morning –
And untouched by noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Grand go the years,
in the crescent above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop –
And Doges – surrender –
Soundless as dots
On a disk of snow.
                                         - F124 (1859)  216

At first the alabaster tombs sound rather nice: in them the dead sleep safely under a “Rafter of satin” as they wait for “the Resurrection.” Yet Dickinson undermines any positive construction. The sleepers are “Untouched by morning” – a symbol of resurrection and rebirth.  They are likewise “untouched by  noon” – the fullness of the day. Note that these positive denotations of morning and noon are chosen by the poet rather than some gloomy term such as “storm” or “night.” We also see that the sleepers are “meek” rather than “worthy” or “saintly” or some such more positive term for future denizens of heaven. And while the rafter may be satin, the roof is of stone. There is an utter barricade between the “members of the Resurrection” and the real world outside. The word “Safe” that introduces the poem begins to seem ironic. The world is where the good action is. The tomb is where you... well, where you just stay in a box underground with no windows. "Safe" deosn't sound so hot.

            The Resurrection was (and is) a pillar in the Christian orthodoxy preached in Dickinson’s Amherst and elsewhere. The Second Coming was to be expected in the near rather than far (centuries) future. Yet the sleepers seem doomed to stay in their “chambers” for all time. As they wait to rise again, the years are measured in cosmic terms. Worlds – and the plural here is interesting, and probably heretical in the day – make their annual circuit and even the “firmaments” – again the plural, presaging the Many Worlds theories, maybe – have time to “row” across space.  Here on earth kingdoms come and go: crowns drop and leaders surrender. But to the sleepers below it might as well be “dots / On a disk of snow.”
            I think that last simile refers to a field of snow dotted by rain, perhaps, or falling leaves and other flotsom. Helen Vendler in her book of essays on selected Dickinson poems has this to say about the final quatrain where the poet likens the death of monarchs and rulers to dots on snow:

Dickinson binds together her sequences of deaths by interwoven alliteration (first “d” for Death, then “s,” perhaps for cessation) to emphasize their inevitability: “Diadems drop …Doges …dots…Disc; surrender…Soundless…sow.” Just as her “d” words – with the exception of “drop” – include “s” (“Diadems,” “Doges,” dots,” “Disc”), her “s” words (except for “snow”) include “d” (“surrender,” Soundless”). The braid of extinction is woven too tight for anyone to escape its grasp.

I think the poet is warning us that to be alive is to be part of the world as it turns and thus part of the universe. To be dead is simply … to be dead.

6 comments:

  1. Vladimir EstragonJuly 12, 2016 at 7:03 PM

    Just for the record, the Johnson number is 216. Johnson also includes the earlier version from 1859, as follows:

    Safe in their alabaster chambers –
    Untouched by morning –
    And untouched by noon –
    Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
    Rafter of satin,
    And roof of stone.

    Light laughs the breeze
    In her castle above them -
    Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,
    Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence -
    Ah, what sagacity perished here!

    Personally, I prefer the later one, especially "lie" instead of "sleep," with its implication of greater permanence.

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    Replies
    1. I much prefer the version Franklin published: the second stanza is more grand, conjuring the sweep of time, the rise and fall of empires and time.

      But in both versions the dead are sleeping, not lying.

      Delete
  2. The grand history of this poem seems to have found its apogee in 1862 when Dickinson added it to Fascicle 10 -- the sixth version of the poem published by Franklin. Like its own meandering trail of tracks across a disc of snow, we have a very granular-level history of the communal revision process that brought this poem to its "final" form. We see in this process Dickinson's laser focus on exemplifying the prime directive of her poetic manifesto -- that the best of her work must create an irremediable physical sensation of deep chill. For all of its beauty, this is a radical poem with a purview that includes multiple worlds and dimensions under assault by degradation. Even the overlords of her own time's Christian cosmology (the Heavenly Father in his firmament) is under assault and making a delusional bee-line for calmer waters. But the poem leaves no safe haven even for the sacred and no singularity but the Dead.

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    Replies
    1. I will have to search this out. I just use the 'Reading Edition'. Sigh.
      I'm enjoying your well-written, insightful commentary. I agree: this is one of ED's many works that evoke a distinct chill.

      Delete
  3. Mr. Berry's theory of degradation is nearly as beautiful as this poem's later version. Anyway, I want to make a suggestion that disc of snow is referring to Pisces' ring, which gives the last stanza more internal harmony. I think she chose Pisces imagery for a specific reason: Bowles.

    ReplyDelete