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08 July 2012

Dropped into the Ether Acre –


Dropped into the Ether Acre –
Wearing the Sod Gown –
Bonnet of Everlasting Laces –
Brooch – frozen on –

Horses of Blonde – and Coach of Silver –
Baggage a strapped Pearl –
Journey of Down – and Whip of Diamond –
Riding to meet the Earl –
                                                            F286 (1862)  665

When embarking on that final journey to meet one’s maker, what better conveyance than a silver hearse drawn by white horses? Even better if the coachman’s whip is made of diamond and the coffin lined with a cosy and soft feather bed!
            The two stanzas of this clever poem seem reversed. In the first stanza the narrator has been buried. She has been “Dropped” into an “Ether” grave – which is to say that she has joined the eternal ethereal substance that floods the universe. The burial must have taken place years prior for she wears a “Sod Gown” as if the coffin had decomposed leaving her corpse exposed to the earth. The “Everlasting Laces” would be the roots of grasses growing over the years. The brooch, once on her burial dress, would not decompose because it would have been made of metal or porcelain. It takes the chill of the underworld and is frozen on to what must by now be bones.
            But in the second stanza the body is being transported in a hearse. How can that be? A moment ago the corpse was "Wearing the Sod Gown." I suspect the poet is thinking in eternal terms. The body may be buried, the coffin decomposed, but the eternal coachman comes in his own time to take the liberated soul to meet the heavenly earl. Perhaps this gives the soul time to truly shed its earthly being – to pare itself down to the inner  “Pearl” that is strapped like a coffin to the coach.  (One can’t help but wonder if Dickinson didn’t select both “pearl” and “earl” more because they rhymed than that either were the best word for the scene.)
            The meter is trochaic. It makes a particularly strong beginning with the word “Dropped.” We can practically see the body falling into the grave. That first line quickly dwindles into the feminine unaccented endings of “Ether Acre.” The second line provides a vivid contrast to the ether with its ending spondee of “Sod Gown.” The “strapped Pearl” of the second stanza is a matching spondee and an opposite image. A pearl is the most perfect of gemstones, needing no faceting or polishing. It certainly needs no gown or bonnet. Coming from the ocean and representing purity and (according to a parable Jesus told) the kingdom of heaven, it is a far cry from the poor corpse covered with sod.
            This is a short poem but the words and images are so strong that two quite vivid scenes are sketched. We first see the sad end of the body and then we see the fantastic journey of the soul.

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