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07 June 2015

I am alive — I guess —

I am alive — I guess —
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory —
And at my finger's end —

The Carmine — tingles warm —
And if I hold a Glass
Across my Mouth — it blurs it —
Physician's — proof of Breath —

I am alive — because
I am not in a Room —
The Parlor — commonly — it is —
So Visitors may come —

And lean — and view it sidewise —
And add "How cold — it grew" —
And "Was it conscious — when it stepped
In Immortality?"

I am alive — because
I do not own a House —
Entitled to myself — precise —
And fitting no one else —

And marked my Girlhood's name —
So Visitors may know
Which Door is mine — and not mistake —
And try another Key —

How good — to be alive!
How infinite — to be
Alive — two-fold — The Birth I had —
And this — besides, in — Thee!
                           F605 (1863)  J470


This ambiguous and interesting poem begins as did the robin in the previous poem – in a "doubtful Tone".  It ends in triumphant affirmation. What transpires between to bridge from one mood to the other is difficult to determine.
        "I am alive", the poet states flatly, adding a dampening "I guess".  Three pieces of evidence follow: her hand is full of morning glory flowers, her fingertips are rosy and warm, and her breath is evident as she breathes across a glass. Morning glories open in the morning and die by evening; consequently, they often are used as symbols of mortality. Victorians also used them to signify love and affection. In this poem Dickinson might be calling on both meanings.
Morning Glory – among the most
feminine of flowers

        The poem then takes on a more emphatic tone, as if the narrator has been reassured by her own evidence. The "I am alive – because" line that introduces the next two sections looks at evidence beyond her own body.  She sees that she is not in a coffin laid out for visitors to look at. Neither is she in a crypt or grave – marked with her "Girlhood's name".
        Finally convinced, the poet exclaims, "How good – to be alive!" as if at least momentarily she really had thought she died. The poet then expands on birth and death: she is not only alive, but alive "two-fold" having been born as a baby and then reborn in some other entity, the "Thee" of the last line. 
        Rebirth in Christian redemption is foundational to Christian evangelicals and was certainly familiar to those living during the revivals sweeping Amherst and other New England communities in the 1850s. Is this the meaning of the poem? 

In "It was not Death, for I stood up" [F355], Dickinson goes through another list of proof through negatives. In a state of despair, she feels as she were frozen or dead, in a state "most, like Chaos – stopless – cool – / Without a Chance…". If this poem is a description of dying to the world, then perhaps another poem, "I'm ceded – I've stopped being Theirs" [F353] provides some insight into how Dickinson perceives being reborn. 
In that poem Dickinson rejects her infant baptism and the faith into which she was born as all "finished". Her second birth is "consciously, of Grace – / Unto supremest name". In this rebirth she exerts her "Will to choose, / Or to reject". What she ends up choosing is "just a Crown".

Dickinson embeds the same same ambiguity in that poem as in the current one. Has she experienced or chosen a rebirth into Christianity? Poetry? Truth? Circumference? A lover?
        Although a religious rebirth seems the simplest reading, I am drawn to the awakening of romantic and physical love. The poem begins with great physicality, with her fingers as branches, their tips tingly and glowing. She holds a mass of flowers newly opened for their day of sun. She is disoriented as if she had been stunned: she looks around to see if she has died and been placed in a casket or grave. After emerging from this swoon, fully alive and flowered, she feels reborn. While this might represent her church-of-nature union with Jesus, it might mean an earthly lover as well. I have no doubt Dickinson wrote with this ambiguity firmly in her own heart. It is a version of the "infinite" that she has become.

3 comments:

  1. So insightful the part where you say, "She looks around to see if she has died." As if she had found herself out of time––

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  2. Beautiful poem; insightful analysis.

    I don't think it necessary to pin down the two-fold birth to a specific meaning. ED in different poems joins images of morning, marriage, sexual maturity, death and spiritual revelation. In "A wife -- at Daybreak I shall be --", ED powerfully evokes a spiritual and sexual union with Christ in a meditation on death. In this poem too, ED refers to her "Girlhood's name", with images of morning ("Morning Glory"), death and rebirth.

    It is a very powerful poem beginning with beautiful, hesitant, prose like rhythms. Rhymes in the first stanzas of the poem (guess, Glass, Breath, because, is, sidewise, conscious, because, house, precise, else) tie the poem together. The poem ends with exact rhymes ("Key", "be", "thee") -- almost like the end of a scene from Shakespeare where exact rhymes signal the transition to a new scene.

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  3. I am confident that the rebirth suggested here is not religious. ED's opinions on that subject were (surprisingly) unambiguous.

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