To Us — Gigantic Sum —
A trifle — in his own esteem —
But magnified — by Fame —
Until it burst the Hearts
That fancied they could hold —
When swift it slipped its limit —
And on the Heavens — unrolled —
'Tis Ours — to wince — and weep —
And wonder — and decay
By Blossoms gradual process —
He chose — Maturity —
And quickening — as we sowed —
Just obviated Bud —
And when We turned to note the Growth —
Broke — perfect — from the Pod —
F530 (1863) J567
The poem laments the death of a young and beloved man. Scholars believe this would be Frazer Stearns, the son of Amherst College's president and particular friend of Dickinson's older brother, Austin. Emily Dickinson was fond of him as well. Frazer was killed in battle and Dickinson writes movingly of his death and well-attended funeral in a letter to her young cousins ( L255).
The poem begins with a monetary analogy similar to that in "It feels a shame to be Alive" ( F524) where she wonders if we survivors are worth the "Sublimely paid" cost of soldier lives that are piled "like Dollars". Here, the soldier, valuing his life as but "A trifle", gave it away. But this trifle, to his survivors a "Gigantic Sum", becomes so "magnified" in the "Fame" of his brave death that it "burst the Hearts" of those who cared for him.
In the lovely and elegiac second stanza Dickinson pivots to the bird-like freedom of the soul that has "slipped its limit" and journeys to "the Heavens. "Unrolled" is reminiscent of her poem a year earlier, "A Bird came down the Walk" ( (F359), where the bird "unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer Home". The rhyme pairing of "hold" and "unrolled" is a gentle one. The soul doesn't struggle from the grip of life. It isn't frantic or frightened. Instead, it slips, swiftly, and unrolls. The stanza is full of "s" sounds that further reinforce the soul's soundless liberty.
(The stanza reminds me of John Gillespie Magee's famous poem "High Flight" where the pilot has "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to reach "The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out my hand and touched the face of God". )
In the final two stanzas Dickinson contrasts the arc of normal lives to that of the soldier. She winds us up a bit with the repeated "w"s – wince, weep, and wonder – and then in something of a knockout punch delivers "decay" to end the series. That is life. We have painful moments when we wince, the bitter disappointments when we weep, and the glorious times – perhaps just strolling in the garden – when we wonder. Yet all the while we decay. The image is disturbing with its suggestion of moldering rot, but then she softens it by reminding us that this is "Blossoms gradual process". Yes, like a flower we bud and bloom before we decay.
The introduction of a botanical image is carried through to the end of the poem. Unlike the arc of a typical human life, the soldier "chose – Maturity". Not for him the budding and blossoming lover or poet, firebrand or farmer. He chose the soldier path during the bloodiest war the United States has ever experienced. He "obviated Bud", bypassing it completely. While his peers were simply sowing (I read this as a wry and youthful "sowing their wild oats" reference in addition to the continuation of the botanical analogy), he was "quickening". That's an interesting word containing as it does both a sense of growing life and growing into maturity. A child quickens in the womb; a boy quickens into the maturity of manhood and issues of life and death and courage.
|Milkweed pod; photo, Harry Alverson|