And when her breath was done
Took up her simple wardrobe
And started for the sun –
Her little figure at the gate
The Angels must have spied,
Since I could never find her
Upon the mortal side.
- F154 (1860) 150
The whole poem turns upon the third and fourth line – otherwise it is banal. The poet no doubt had the image of a small woman or perhaps just a girl, modest suitcase in hand, headed “for the sun.” It is a nice image with its brave but humble traveller headed East, the direction of morning and rebirth. But then the image is wrecked for me by having “Angels” noticing (the clichéd, even in Dickensonson’s day, “spied”) “Her little figure at the gate.” I suppose this is disappointing because we began with the death of an ordinary person, a girl or woman, and a small one at that. Not a power figure. But she is aiming at the sun – a grand destination! We expect something exciting or interesting to happen as the modest meets the great and divine.
But all that happens is that she ends up at some gate – and there’s no reason given to indicate it’s anything other than a rustic garden gate – that the angels eventually open to let her in.
The last two lines don’t even make much sense. If you know someone has died, why would you go looking for her “Upon the mortal side”? As for the first two lines, we expect some interesting detail about “the way she died,” but instead we only get “And when her breath was done.” After that the little wench is off to the sun.
I’d have to toss this poem in with some of the others already reviewed here that talk about some humble woman or girl’s death in a sweet but banal way.