I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true --
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe --
The eyes glaze once -- and that is Death --
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
F339 (1862) 241
It’s easy to read this poem and feel sort of aghast. Really, Emily? You like the agony because there is more truth in it than in the insincere smiles of the neighbors passing by on the street? And isn’t it a bit, um, harsh or at least dismissive to call the sweat of death agony “Beads upon the Forehead” that are strung by “homely Anguish”?
The dying convulsions and throes as the body gives up the battle (we’re not talking about a quiet passing in one’s sleep here) are a badge of authenticity. And then the capper—one cannot “feign” the glaze of death. Maybe you could fake a lot of other stuff, but not that.
|Painter Joanna Boyce just after death, by|
Yet I think back on some of Dickinson’s earlier poems about death. Yes, I got impatient with her always wanting to be there when people died so she could help their transition from one energy phase to the next, but it was evident that she truly felt that the journey after death was the greatest, grandest, most important journey ever.
In “A throe upon the features,” Dickinson says that after the throe there is “An ecstasy of parting.” It is as if a butterfly has fought its way out of a cocoon. It is exhausting and perhaps painful, but then the beautiful thing is free and airborn. Likewise, we all suffered in birth. The path from womb to tomb isn’t an easy one, yet it is essential.
And so in this poem I think that Dickinson is making the point that great pain at death can bare the soul to an honesty not easily attained in the day-to-day world. It is this level of honesty that is most needed in the rebirth from mortal to immortal life. Additionally, I think that Dickinson is saying that this honesty and mortal death is somehow uplifting and beneficial to the observer. Yes, Virginia, there is a bitter truth—perhaps a triumphant truth, but certainly the plain and unavoidable reality of death. The deaths that come complete with convulsions and agony simply make the point more clearly.
Still doubtful? Think about Mel Gibson’s famous and acclaimed movie about the death of Jesus, The Passion of Christ. The movie was also accused of being a sadistic wallowing in the agonies of death. Perhaps Gibson was channeling a bit of Dickinson. I imagine that Dickinson had an image of crucifixion in her mind, too, as she wrote this poem.