That passed the mouldering Pier –
Just as the Granite Crumb let go –
Our Savior, by a Hair –
A second more, had dropped too deep
For Fisherman to plumb –
The very profile of the Thought
Puts Recollection numb –
The possibility – to pass
Without a moment's Bell –
Into Conjecture's presence –
Is like a Face of Steel –
That suddenly looks into ours
With a metallic grin –
The Cordiality of Death –
Who drills his Welcome in –
F243 (1861) 286
It’s interesting that in this poem as well as in F238, “How many times these low feet staggered,” Dickinson uses machine imagery to represent death. In F238 the dead body itself was referred to as a “rivet,” its ribcage “hasps of steel.” In this poem it is Death who has the “Face of Steel” and a “metallic grin” that “drills his Welcome in.” This isn’t surprising as so much of Dickinson’s poetry celebrates earthly beauties such as robins, flowers, bees, sunsets, etc., as paradisical. Paradise itself she has likened to a beautiful May day. Metallic, mechanical objects are obvious opposites. If you transpose the once living form into a machine, that is a horror. If you animate a mechanical thing as Death, that is even a greater horror.
Modern readers have only to think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, and the movies based on those books, to see the ravages and hell many pastoralists saw in the Industrial Age. Imagine Hobbiton tucked into sunny, peaceful hills, a little Eden, against Mount Doom in the corrupt and corrupting realm of Gondor. Here, as in Dickinson, Industrialization represents the forces of death while the natural world means life.
The poem examines a near-death experience. Dickinson complicates the reading by leaving out enough words that it takes some close reading to follow some of what happens. I’ve put some words in to flesh out what she (successfully and poetically) elides; I’ve also paraphrased some of the imagery:
That Horror after death – that was us (my soul and I [see previous poem for Dickinson representing her soul as a person within a person]) that passed the rotting Pier of the flesh just as the granite rock anchoring the pier was about to crumble. But then Our Saviour rescued us by a Hair. A second more and we would have dropped too deep into death – for Fishermen to pull us out. The very outline of the Thought makes the recalling of it numb. The very possibility of dying without a marker such as a tolling Bell into the presence of what can only be conjectured is like a Face of Steel that suddenly looks into our face with a metallic grin. This is the Cordiality of Death who drills his ‘Welcome’.
In the second stanza Dickinson recalls Jesus’ words to his soon-to-be disciples Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew as they were fishing along the shore of Lake Galilee. “Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). The stanza expresses the narrator’s fear that she might fall too far for rescue even by the church (founded by Jesus’ disciples, particularly fisherman Simon Peter). Her use of the singular “Fisherman” may imply that the greatest Fisherman, Jesus himself, might have been unable to save her had she fallen a bit further.
Dickinson captures something of the terror of such a moment not by saying the dying soul would soon face either God or the Devil without sufficient warning, but “Conjecture.” She doesn’t know, can only form conjectures about what might lie ahead. It is this possibility that – far from offering the comfort of even the light at the end of a tunnel that numerous near-death survivors have described – presents itself to her as a leering figure with drills. Perhaps this horror explains her despair expressed in other poems and in some letters over not being with the dying to offer hope and comfort (see “I should not dare to leave my friend,” F234).
The poem anticipates “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” written the following year where the consciousness or perhaps soul lingers in the dead body for a while, experiencing excruciating sensations until her “mind was going numb.” Eventually “Space – began to toll, / / As all the Heavens were a Bell,” and then the soul is “wrecked, solitary.” The poem ends as “a Plank in Reason, broke,” and the narrator plunges “down and down.” There is no salvation “by a hair” in that poem. “Because I could not stop for Death,” written within a year, takes a far more benign look at death. There is no pain, nor horror in that poem. Death is courteous and civil and takes the narrator on a leisurely ride to what seems to be eternal rest. It is certainly a welcome turn for the better in Dickinson’s imagery – and perhaps her life.