Do People moulder equally,
They bury, in the Grave?
I do believe a Species
As positively live
As I, who testify it
Deny that I — am dead —
And fill my Lungs, for Witness —
From Tanks — above my Head —
I say to you, said Jesus —
That there be standing here —
A Sort, that shall not taste of Death —
If Jesus was sincere —
I need no further Argue —
That statement of the Lord
Is not a controvertible —
He told me, Death was dead —
F390 (1862) 432
This odd, religious-Goth poem finds its touchstone in a New Testament passage where Jesus is talking to his disciples (Mark 9:1): ‘Verily, I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not
taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.’ (Mark 9:1)
The first stanza begins chatty and cheerily—and then has us visualizing decomposing corpses! Hmmm... do they decompose—or "moulder"—at the same rate? Next, Dickinson introduces a frisson of horror: she believes a "Species"—a category of beings similar to but distinct from homo sapiens—exists that continues to live even after being buried. The poet swears it, the species is "positively [a]live." Dickinson employs the legalese of the court: the speaker testifies and denies, calls in a witness. Later in the poem the speaker assures her listeners that she has "need no further Argue." The statement of faith is "not a controvertible."
Seemingly the poet feels very strongly about her belief in the living dead and wants to convince the reader. She uses her own credibility as a witness as grounds for belief. But when I examine the language closely, I get the feeling Dickinson is having a bit of Gothic fun. She enjoys the corpses and the sort of steampunk tank of air in the sky. She is undermining scripture rather than championing it.
In the third stanza the poet inserts some spooky-sounding words of Jesus: some of his listeners are of "A Sort" that will never die. She ignores the part about “till they.” She substitutes the more disturbing “Sort” for the Biblical “some.” These little differences make the claim sound more outlandish even than in Mark. And in Mark it is too outlandish for many if taken literally. Instead, the passage is widely interpreted as meaning the "kingdom of God" was going to "come with power" within the lifetimes of those present. It hasn’t ever been taught, as far as I know, that some of the disciples are still living.
Having introduced irony by making Jesus’ claim seem spooky and far-fetched, Dickinson casually introduces a conditional clause that undermines it further: “If Jesus was sincere.” If he were sincere than there is no arguing about what was meant. If death doesn’t exist for some, per Jesus’ claim, then death doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way. It is “dead.” That Jesus was sacrificed to ensure eternal life for Christians is a central tenet of Christianity. He defeated death.
By undermining Jesus’ sincerity and by making his claim seem outlandish, Dickinson undermines the claim of eternal life itself. And she does it by having some fun in the court house and at the cemetery.