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23 August 2014

It's coming — the postponeless Creature —

It's coming — the postponeless Creature —
It gains the Block — and now — it gains the Door —
Chooses its latch, from all the other fastenings —
Enters — with a "You know me — Sir"?

Simple Salute — and Certain Recognition —
Bold — were it enemy — Brief — were it friend —
Dresses each House in Crape, and Icicle —
And Carries one — out of it — to God —
                                          F556 (1863)  J390

The one visitor who cannot be denied entry, whose arrival cannot be postponed, is Death. Dickinson continues in the Gothic vein from the previous poem to pen this sketch of Death's visit. 
        What could be more dramatic than her opening words, "It's coming", followed by the creepy "postponeless Creature". We see it reaching the block and then the door, unerringly reaching for the proper latch among all the other door fastenings. Dickinson says Death "gains" the block and the door as if its ultimate victory is being built step by step. It is inexorable.
But for all this scary build up it seems this Death is akin to the gentleman caller in "Because I could not stop for Death" [F479) who conveyed his passenger in great "Civility". The current caller is vastly superior, however. While Death in 479 took his passenger to what seems an eternity in a grave, this one carries its subject "to God". 
His visit doesn't arouse the terror and dread the first stanza would suggest. The dying person recognizes and salutes him (or perhaps Death salutes his subject). If he is perceived an enemy he acts with bold resolution; if as a friend, perhaps a deliverer, his visit is blessedly brief. Those left behind to live another while don their black crape mourning clothes, their tears sharp as icicles.  
Can't you just hear the chain rattling?

Part of the dread induced by the first stanza is due to Dickinson's pacing. That first line is a slow read. The feminine (unaccented) ending of "coming" creates a whisper; the long vowels of "postponeless Creature" draw out the rest of the line – to say nothing of the ghostly sound of "postponeless". It sounds like moaning. Death's progress is graphed quite visually, particularly at the door where the reader pictures him at the latch.
The second stanza is more assertive with trochees beginning the first three lines. The firm trochaic meter is the parallel structures of the first two lines: Simple Salute; Certain Recognition; and Bold were…/ Brief were… 

I find the contrast between the two stanzas quite effective and meaningful. The approach of death (at least this type of death) is surely more fraught with dread and fear than the actual encounter.


  1. This poem and, I believe, the last poem are examples of EDs riddle poems (my favorite of this type is "Drab habitation of whom?"). In this poem, we don't learn that the answer to the riddle is death until the last line -- although the word "crepe" is a strong hint. The last poem, I think, is the same structure -- but EDs poems are personal, never published and she doesn't give enough hints to figure it out. I thought maybe a bird's or a squirrel's nest -- but I didn't realyy persuade myself.

    In this poem, death prefers latches of all the other fastenings because a latch is the fastening that can't be locked. Nothing bars death's entry.

    I think you are right -- death is bold to enemies of death and takes what he has come for without hesitation or permission. He is brief with his friends -- offering relief from pain and age.

    The images bring in metaphors for death. Night ("It gains the Block -- and now -- it gains the Door --") in a beautiful line that is a wonderful example of EDs use of dashes as pauses. And winter ("icicles") -- the chill of the cool body as live leaves, the numbness of emotion, or, maybe -- as you say -- tears.

    EDs relationship to death is always interesting. Death is "recognition" -- ("Master, I've seen the face before --"). There is a formality, but kindness, to the relation between death and the dying.

    1. Thanks for clarifying the latches/fastenings aspect. I spent quite a bit of time browsing pictures of Victorian doors. I grew up with just door knobs and maybe a deadbolt so have never been clear on latches and fastenings.

      I love that line, too, where the Creature gains the block. I hadn't thought of the related metaphors of night and winter for death. I like your gloss of icicle as the cold body (and perhaps the chill of horror at death's presence) rather than the tears I had suggested. Tears aren't really cold.

  2. Interesting comments. I think more generally speaking the words 'Block', 'latches' and 'fastenings' suggest the (superficial) attempts by humanity to buttress ourselves against death. However, due to its inenvitability, we cannot keep it at bay in the same way we could literally shut out a physical entity.
    I feel the word 'icicle' may suggest the emotional numbness experienced by a household in the wake of death.
    As you mentioned, death becomes a much more benign character than the nightmarish 'Creature' of the first stanza. The tone is the last line, of the dead person carried to God, implies transcendence and in tone is more uplifting (to use an appropriate word) than the bleakness and finality of Dickinson's other poems on death.