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12 April 2014

A Dying Tiger — moaned for Drink —

A Dying Tiger — moaned for Drink —
I hunted all the Sand —
I caught the Dripping of a Rock
And bore it in my Hand —

His Mighty Balls — in death were thick —
But searching — I could see
A Vision on the Retina
Of Water — and of me —

'Twas not my blame — who sped too slow —
'Twas not his blame — who died
While I was reaching him —
But 'twas — the fact that He was dead —
                                                                          F529 (1863)  J566

I've been looking at this poem for over a week. I've been trying to find something interesting to say – and think – about it. I have been unable to even decide if it is humorous or not. That last stanza just seems a bit arch: "'Twas not his blame – who died". It is clearly ironic. "Sped too slow" is clever and witty. "Sped" also has the advantage of rhyming with "dead" – surely a lightweight counterbalance. The three "'Twas"s have a light singsongy quality, and the last line seems very close to a punch line. 
And yet the first two stanzas are full of pathos. The iconic great cat moans for water; the would-be rescuer has only her hands to carry what little drippings come from a rock drenched with dew or some seeping spring. The second stanza intensifies the pathos as the speaker searches the "Mighty" eyeballs of the tiger, probably to see if there is any life left. What she sees, however, is that the tiger has died. There is no life in the eyes, only the reflection of herself and the water she carries. Too little too late.

Dickinson has presented this theme in earlier poems. In my commentary on F195, "Victory comes late –" where Victory "is held low to freezing lips – / Too rapt with frost / To take it –", I write:
Karolina Jakubowska, watercolor pencils
Dickinson wrote numerous poems exploring the theme of “too little too late,” and on haves vs. have-nots.  There are beggars who would revel at a feast if only they could go (As Watchers hang upon the East),  someone dying of thirst despite lovely meadow brooks (To learn the Transport by the Pain), and a dying and defeated soldier hearing the victor’s trumpet calls (Success is counted sweetest), among others. In those poems she seemed to be holding up the paradox for examination: why those and not those others? What tragic irony that one could die with water close at hand or starve while food abounds.

I can't shake the feeling that the tone of this poem is … parodic? Saucy? Arch? Wry? Readers, what do you think?


  1. This poem has different contrasts and tensions -- dryness and water, great strength and power leveled by death, human relationship in extremis, all ending in a question -- who is to blame?

    The first stanza sets up a crisis -- great physical need and human compassion. The effort is inadequate. This isn't even an attempt to save the tiger -- simply to assuage its suffering. The "Dripping of a Rock" carried in cupped hands could never satisfy the thirst of such a great beast.

    The second stanza moves to a moment that is very important in Dickinson's poetry -- the moment of death, of parting. Here, Dickinson captures a moment frozen in the senses of the senses of the tiger (similar in a way to "I heard a Fly Buzz" -- freezes a last sensory experience before death). The image of the human bearing water is a "Vision of the Retina". Retina ia a very scientific word -- and it captures Dickinson's precision -- she wants to understand this moment, to dissect it, to know what the dying one experiences. The retina is an internal structure of the eye -- it is the part of the eye that sees. And this is a vision "of" the retina. It may be that the human sees hereself in the thickening eye -- but she is projecting this to what the tiger sees in its last moment before darkness.

    The last stanza moves from the immediacy of the senses to a big question: "Who is to blame?" The poet begins by saying who is not to blame -- the mortal man whose heart is broken by the death and the beast who dies. Left out is any mention of god. It is here that the meter of the poem breaks up. It becomes stumbling, uncertain. The poem ends with the thought of blame halting with "the fact that He was dead". The fact of death is more powerful that the thought. He is dead because he is dead. There is no answer here -- just silence.

    1. Thank you - opens up the poem for me beautifully. I particularly appreciate your thoughts on the last stanza with the question of blame.

      I struggled with this poem so your insights (so well and expeditiously composed!) are very welcome.

  2. I agree-- I also struggled with the ending, and your comments helped greatly. still would like to reflect more on it, but your thoughts provide a very important possible interpretation. thanks so much

  3. This seems to me that ED is approaching some former mightiness in herself she tries to feed that her meager capacities can't and so death takes it. It's a masculine part of herself the feminine, already starved itself, cannot resurrect. I'm reading John Cody's After Great Pain, and thinking in his psychological terms, which hold a lot of merit to consider ED's basic in personal dilemma.

    1. Interesting. Or perhaps she is witnessing the "tiger" in someone else die ... and can do nothing to stop it.

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  5. I think she is speaking here about an unresponsive part of her inner lover/ tiger strong part of herself that she was not able to reach even though she tried. MC

  6. Since Frazar Stearn’s death, if not before, death and water seem fixed in ED’s subconscious:

    “He [Frazar Stearns] fell by the side of Professor Clark, his superior officer - lived ten minutes in a [soldier’s] arms, asked twice for water - murmured just, "My God!" and passed!”

    (L255, late March 1862. To Francis and Louisa Norcross)

    ED wants to offer water to the dying:

    "The World — feels Dusty
    When We stop to Die —
    We want the Dew — then —
    Honors — taste dry —
    Mine be the Ministry
    When thy Thirst comes —"

    (F491, “about late 1862)

    But in her subconscious poetry furnace, perhaps a bad dream, she arrives too late:

    “'Twas not my blame — who sped too slow —
    'Twas not his blame — who died
    While I was reaching him —
    But 'twas — the fact that He was dead —"

    ED tries to understand why, in her nightmares, she arrives too late, but it doesn’t matter, “He was dead —"

    ‘A Dying Tiger’ isn’t parodic, saucy, arch, or wry; it’s ED coming to terms with death in her own inimitable way.

  7. But, that inimitable way includes a final line that "shift[s] the blame away from . . . the tardy nurse . . . onto an impersonal universe."

    Pollak, Vivian R. 1979. Thirst and Starvation in Emily Dickinson's Poetry. American Literature , 51(1): 33-49.