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25 June 2012

Should you but fail at – Sea –


Should you but fail at – Sea –
In sight of me –
Or doomed lie –
Next Sun – to die –
Or rap – at Paradise – unheard
I'd harass God
Until He let you in!
                                                            275 (1862)  226

This desert really is next to the sun.
Peteforsyth
Dickinson here begins the poem in an old-timey melodramatic way that was probably all to common in the parlors where poetry was read in her day. She sketches three woeful fates that might befall her beloved: 1) he might drown in the ocean – in sight of her!  2) He might perish in the burning desert “Next [to the] Sun”; or 3) He might die for any number of reasons but then be knocking on Heaven’s door with nobody letting him in.
            The first four lines are in rhymed couplets in keeping with their doom: Sea / me; and lie / die. I’m pretty sure we’re to pronounce “doomed” as “doom – ed” to emphasize the schmaltz. But then the poet’s playfulness becomes manifest. She uses “unheard” for the futile rapping at Paradise, but then slant rhymes it with “God”! It’s a kind of awkward, funny rhyme and it certainly undermines the sense of poetic tragedy that seemed to be building.
            And then the last two lines clinch the mood. Like a terrier wife, the poet is going to get after God, “harass” him, until he calls Uncle and opens the door. It’s a funny image and the diction is comical, too.

The poem was sent to Samuel Bowles, a man often ill and often traveling. I imagine him saying in response to Dickinson’s frequent wishes for his health and safety that he didn’t dare die because the Almighty wouldn’t take him in. I imagine this poem as a response.

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