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15 August 2013

The Whole of it came not at once —

The Whole of it came not at once —
'Twas Murder by degrees —
A Thrust — and then for Life a chance —
The Bliss to cauterize —

The Cat reprieves the Mouse

She eases from her teeth
Just long enough for Hope to tease —
Then mashes it to death —

'Tis Life's award — to die —

Contenteder if once —
Than dying half — then rallying
For consciouser Eclipse —
                                                                      F485 (1862)  J762

This poem just doesn't work for me. The first stanza starts well enough with its metaphorical language about love and pain and the the bliss that cauterizes the "Thrust" of pain. But then we get the tired cliché (perhaps it wasn't tired in 1862, though) about the cat playing with the mouse. The final stanza says it's better to die once than twice. 

Mouse about to get mashed

The take-away from this poem? Why get your hopes up only to have them dashed?

One odd thing about his poem is the line about the cat mashing the mouse to death. It just makes a weird visual in  my head. 

**Note: A commenter does a much better job than I did with this poem. (It was late, I was grumpy...)


  1. I fully agree that the poem would be better without the second stanza. Without this stanza, it is a splendid poem.

    One interesting aspect of the poem is that it inverts conventional attitudes toward death. After a near death experience in the first stanza, life recovers and returns to normal by "cauteriz[ing}" the "Bliss" -- an amazing phrase. And then, in the last stanza, death is "Life's award".

    By the way, I am not convinced that in the last stanza ED prefers being "contenteder" to "consciouser". At best, she seems neutral on the choice and simply observes the distinction -- that one who dies more than once may have lived through pain but obtains consciousness and wisdom. In several poems ("My life closed twice . . " is one example), ED makes clear that her life falls in the second category -- of experiencing grief and death and being "consciouser" for it.

    The use of "contendeder" and "consciouser" is an interesting formulation of the comparative that ED uses elsewhere ("antiquest" in "Further in summer than the birds . . ."). I'm not convinced it really works here -- but it is fun.

  2. Good points - thank you. Now that I actually *think* about the poem I particularly like "Eclipse" paired with "consciouser." For the uninitiate, there is death; with that wisdom born of pain, perhaps, the consciousness has a different vantage.

    However, on re-reading more carefully, I am confused by the first stanza: the "Murder by degrees" seems to be contradicted by the "Thrust." I suppose that bad things were going on for quite a while, culminating in some more overt act of pain giving, but still ...

    1. Thinking about murder in her century.. by knife ... I get "the Thrust" - followed by a reprieve. It really is how we feel pain in this life, in'it? Emotional pain - then it goes away, heals over - then we get another stab, a loss, a bewildered patch of experience - we are the mouse, truly, in the teeth of a larger power whose motives are so different from our own... we are driven to continually question them.

  3. Eclipse is a great word. It makes a nice slant rhyme with "once". It also creates a sense both of a gradual death by "degrees" and an image of death superimposing itself over and obscuring life -- so there is a sense of life going on underneath. I expect it reads too much into the word in the context of this poem, but if death is an "eclipse" life will emerge again as the penumbra of death passes by.

  4. Aha, what fun to see what I guess is my favorite Emily poem. I had a blog running several years that I named Consciouser Eclipse in its honor. I'll be seventy in a few more weeks, and continue to believe that my own eventual demise will be, well, at least interestinger if not consciouser than what it would have been had I not encountered this amazing poet. She squeaks for us mice pretty well.

  5. I love ED's poems that continually knock me on my butt with their brilliant images and music, but I'm afraid the last stanza with its "Contenteder" and "consciouser" feels (and sounds) clumsy. Forgive me, Em.

    1. She gets to be funny sometimes... 3 parts sublime, one part mischief... playing with words is so much fun. This poem is best read from the inside out - be the poet and come up with that word!

  6. I’m not so sure she is choosing to be “contenteder” though, since she is so in thrall to the process and actual moment of death (too many poems to cite here, but the fly comes to mind) - she would have wanted to experience the “award” in a “consciouser” way, don’t you think?

    1. I do agree -- and your comment on her death-process poems offers a lot of insight here. I think Anonymous'comments flesh this out nicely, too, particularly in 'Eclipse' gloss.

      It's a big question, really: would you go 'contenteder' or 'consciouser'? Poet Emily seems all in for consciouser.

  7. Today I listened to the terrific Modpo discussion of "He fumbles at your soul" and this poem seems to be a kind of spin off of (or from) that one. There is the resonance between "murder by degrees" and "stuns you by degrees", and between the "thrust" and the "imperial thunderbolt" following the degrees. The "He fumbles at", and the cat playing with the mouse seem of a kind, and at the end of the earlier poem you have the forest (bird, mouse?) held in the "paws" of the winds". Cat paws?

    The earlier poem is complicated by its musical metaphor, but I think the idea is very similar. The Modpo analysts seemed to want to bring out the positive possibilities of the "fumbles" poem, but this later poem takes that reading away for me. It is just a naked look at the pain of being messed with by life and then, ultimately, dispatched. Mashed!

    But I agree that that "consciouser" is redemptive in a way. Better to be honest about the scalping the soul will get. Perhaps!

    Along these lines, when I went to see the Emily Dickinson show at the Morgan library in NYC, one detail that stopped me cold was a reference to “Endor’s Closet” in a letter Emily wrote her nieces.

    “Dear Girls,

    I hope you are having superb times, and am sure you are — for I hear your voices mad and sweet — as a mob of bobolinks.

    I send you my love — which is always new for Rascals like you, and ask instead a little apartment in your Pink Hearts — call it Endor’s Closet.

    If ever the World should Frown on you — he is old — you know — give him a kiss, and that will disarm him — if it dont — tell him from me, Who has not found the Heaven — below — Will fail of it above, for Angels rent the House next our’s, Wherever we remove —

    Lovingly, Emily”

    I wondered what Endor’s Closet could be? The only reference I could find for Endor on the internet, aside from its current usage as the planet of the Ewoks (!) was a biblical reference to the witch of Endor. From Wikipedia I found out, “Saul, the king of Israel, seeks wisdom from God in choosing a course of action against the assembled forces of the Philistines. He receives no answer from Yahweh. Having driven out all necromancers from Israel, Saul searches for a medium anonymously and in disguise. His search leads him to a woman of Endor, who claims that she can see the ghost of Samuel rising from the abode of the dead. The voice of the prophet’s ghost, after complaining of being disturbed, berates Saul for disobeying God, and predicts that Saul will perish with his whole army in battle the next day. Saul is terrified. The witch of Endor comforts Saul when she sees his distress and insists on feeding him before he leaves.The next day, his army is defeated as prophesied, and Saul commits suicide.”

    If I’m getting this reference right, Emily is identifying here with the witch of Endor; a medium who reveals the future, however uncomfortable it may be. The witch is working in opposition to Yahweh, but not without compassion for Saul. It’s a revelatory self-perception, all packed so tightly into this one allusion, in this one little closet, which is in turn so lovingly placed inside the wild Pink Hearts of her nieces.

    1. The letter! The Endor reference -- so enriching to this poem. Ah, to have a beloved wise woman (witch) ensconced in the heart ...

  8. Another poem of madness: depression, false reprieve, more depression. Will it never end?

    ‘The Whole of it’ echoes ‘'Twas like a Maelstrom’ (F425) [brackets mine]:

    “'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch [center],
    That nearer, every Day,
    Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel
    Until the Agony

    “Toyed coolly with the final inch
    Of your [my] delirious Hem —
    . . . .
    “And when the Film had stitched your [my] eyes
    A Creature gasped "Reprieve"!
    Which Anguish was the utterest — then —
    To perish, or to live?”

    Pass the Prozac PLEASE, or would that end the torrent of such poems?