Sunrise – Hast thou a Flag for me?
At Midnight – I am but a Maid –
How short it takes to make a Bride –
Then – Midnight – I have passed from thee –
Unto the East – and Victory –
Midnight – Good Night! – I hear them call –
The Angels bustle in the Hall –
Softly – my Future climbs the Stair –
I fumble at my Childhood's prayer –
So soon to be a Child – no more –
Eternity, I'm coming – Sir –
Master – I've seen the face – before –
- F185 (1861) 461
This evocative poem relies on metaphors too ambiguous to make a precise interpretation of it possible. Dickinson’s poetry consistently uses sunrise as a symbol of new life in paradise, of awe and wonder, and also of love. The East is used in similar ways as a stand-in for paradise, but she has also used it to stand for victory and for passion. She explicitly links the East here with Victory, but the nature of the victory is uncertain. Will she be surrendering to a lover? Dying and going to Heaven? The stairway that the Future climbs can figure as easily as a sexual metaphor as a heavenly one. So let’s just work through the poem and see what we find.
Second stanza: At midnight the speaker goes to bed in her upstairs bedroom. People wish her good night as she retires and she can hear “Angels bustle in the Hall.” She stops to contemplate her situation – and this goes back to the first stanza when she thinks about the magnitude of the change she is about to undergo from midnight to dawn. Midnight – the darkest mystery, is usually set in opposition to the fullness of noon. Here it represents the moment of change: on one side maidenhood; on the other, Bride. The time between is surprisingly short. Again, whether she contemplates her own death or her loss of virginity, is uncertain.
|Dickinson Home - Emily's room lit; waiting for her |
"Future" to climb the stairs?
Her imagery is positive, however. “A Wife” is clearly superior to being “but a Maid” whether she be bride of Christ or bride of a highly-desired lover. The passing of one state to another represents victory and to complete the image, she wonders if she will get the victor’s flag at daybreak. The “Future” climbs her stair “Softly” and bears a familiar face. Certainly whatever or whoever is coming for her is not fearsome and means no harm. We would know that already, though, by the Angels’ presence making all ready the way nurses bustle about preparing things for the doctor.
The poem builds in suspense and tension, particularly as the poet fumbles at her “Childhood’s prayer.” The footsteps approach! The moment is at hand – the transformation from “Child” to … what? The last two lines of the poem at first seem to resolve meaning, only to dissolve into more uncertainty. The Future has climbed the stairs and the speaker finishes her prayers. She then addresses the “Future” as “Eternity” – and this indicates that it has, indeed, been Death that she expects to occur after midnight. She addresses Eternity through the representative, “Sir,” and “Master.” She has seen the face of this representative before. So just as we were tempted to say, “Ah, Jesus has come for her to usher her from death into everlasting life,” we must then wonder if she isn’t looking at a dear earthly beloved face and likening it to the coming of Christ to take her to Him. This interpretation is bolstered by her use of “Master,” for as we know she referred to several beloved men as “Master,” and even had a series of frankly passionate letters addressed to “Master.”
It seems most likely, though, that Dickinson is making the final Mystery as mysterious as possible. Just as young virgins don’t truly know what love’s consummation will be like on their wedding nights, so too we don’t really know what death will be like. We hope it will wear a familiar and beloved face.