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20 June 2015

I think the longest Hour of all

I think the longest Hour of all
Is when the Cars have come —
And we are waiting for the Coach —
It seems as though the Time

Indignant — that the Joy was come —
Did block the Gilded Hands —
And would not let the Seconds by —
But slowest instant — ends —

The Pendulum begins to count —
Like little Scholars — loud —
The steps grow thicker — in the Hall —
The Heart begins to crowd —

Then I — my timid service done —
Tho' service 'twas, of Love —
Take up my little Violin —
And further North — remove –
                                                                    F607 (1863)  J635

When I first read this poem I imagined a beloved friend or family member coming for a visit by train. The longest hour would be the wait between the train (the "Cars") arriving at the station and the arrival home of the coach sent to pick the passenger up. In this reading the end is rather sad. Rather than join in the joyful greeting, the narrator goes upstairs. Her "little Violin" would be her voice and perhaps a gestating poem. This is consistent with what we know of Dickinson: when one of her dearest friends, Samuel Bowles, arrived after a long time abroad, Dickinson would not venture out to greet him, but retreated upstairs to her room and wrote a poetic note.
But I think it more likely that the poem depicts a household scene when someone dies. People would have arrived by carriages of some sort (the "Cars"), either to wait for the funeral hearse (a literal "Coach") or else for a death watch, death arriving here in a metaphorical coach as in "Because I could not stop for Death". Either way, death watch or gathering for a funeral procession, the hour that they wait is the "longest Hour".
Home funerals were held in the parlor

Time here seems a grasping creature of mortality. As the dying person meets her Joy and the immortal night of death arrives (or perhaps the blessing of interment), Time is "Indignant" and tries to stop the seconds from passing by blocking the hands of the clock. Yet its efforts are futile. Even that "slowest instant" when a moment seems to last forever passes and time resumes. The pendulum begins to swing again, ticking loudly to count the time. As if all is now in synchrony, the beating heart becomes full, crowded with feeling as mourners can be heard crowding in the hall. The carriage has arrived.
In terms of narrative, the ending is anticlimactic. We have the resumption of time, the increased movement of the crowd, the crowding of the heart … and then the mouse-like departure of the narrator. Her service was "timid", her violin, "little". Rather than stay or continue on with the others, she "remove[s]" herself "North" from the scene as if putting away the fancy plate.
Until that last stanza the voice of the poem seemed to be that of the poet writing in a detached, contemplative tone as if generalizing about the experience of death. But then Dickinson switches to the voice of someone present in that longest hour. Perhaps this person is a musician called upon to play soothing or uplifting music at such times. Or perhaps she is a family member, this is her own house, and her "little Violin" refers to her tears and expressions of grief.
But if we think of the narrator as Dickinson herself, we see the poet imbibing the sense of death, the feelings of the mourners, the strange abeyance of time. We see her disengaging from the public role at the end, removing herself, to return to the harsh truth of the North from where many of her poems come.

Note: One Victorian custom was to stop the clocks at the moment of death. Then the body would be constantly watched for three or four days. This would be the wake – in case the dead isn't really dead and wakes up. The family of the deceased would meanwhile provide the undertaker with information about how many carriages will be needed for the funeral procession. These would include the hearse carriage, and conveyance for family, pall bearers, and clergy – depending on what the family could afford.

As to the stopping of the clocks, I suspect  W.H. Auden had the stopping of the clocks in mind when he wrote this famous poem in 1936:

              Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


  1. I like the way ED renders her "service" here, as music to relieve those in grief, at the time of deepest need, when time seems to have stopped. The Auden poem you have included here is apropos as it is probably the poem most often read at funeral services, and famously in "Four Weddings and a Funeral". The poem performs its timid service "of love" and then retreats up north. Very sweet. It's a touching poem.

    (A study of directions, North, South, East, West, in Dickinson's peoetry would be instructive. They all seem to carry such deep meanings for the poet.)

    1. There is such a thing -- alas, I can't remember much about it, including the scholar. She charts the meanings ED tends to suggest with various directions, times of day, seasons, etc.


  2. During 1850-1853 ED’s father led a small group of investors who built the Amherst and Belchertown Railroad. No doubt he encouraged locating the passenger station on Main Street, 200 yards east of Homestead. Perhaps Time did “block the Gilded Hands” of the clock, but not for very long. Were it not for luggage, visitors could easily walk to Homestead in 10 minutes.

    Despite ED’s impatience with Time, when she heard steps “in the Hall” she “timidly” bid hello, felt crowded in her “Heart”, and vanished to her room to play her “little violin”, that is, to compose poetry. ED often referred to composing as “singing”, but she used the “violin” metaphor only twice, here (F607, 1863) and in ‘The Spirit lasts — but in what mode’ (F1627, 1883).