Search This Blog

03 February 2024

To know just how He suffered – would be dear –

To know just how He suf –
fered – would be dear –
To know if any Human eyes
were near
To whom He could entrust
His wavering gaze –
Until it settled broad – on
Paradise –

To know if He was patient –
part content –
Was Dying as He thought –
or different –
Was it a pleasant Day
to die –
And did the Sunshine
face His way –

What was His furthest mind –
of Home – or God –
Or What the Distant say –
At News that He ceased
Human Nature
Such a Day –

And Wishes – Had He any –
Just His Sigh – accented –
Had been legible – to Me –
And was He Confident
Ill fluttered out – in Ever –
lasting Well –

And if He spoke – What
name was Best –
What last                               +first
What one broke off with
At the Drowsiest –

Was he afraid – or tranquil –
Might He know
How Conscious Consciousness – could grow –
Till Love that was – and
Love too best to be –
Meet – and the Junction
be Eternity                            +mean

            -F688, J622, Fascicle 32, 1863 

            -lineated as originally hand-written by Dickinson.*

This is a meditation on that liminal moment just before death. I read it as aspirational. Whose death the poet is considering isn't important. Ultimately, it is the reader’s own that is in question. The choices the poem implicitly presents are conditional. How much will you suffer at death? That first question, alone, might stop us in our tracks. Next question: who will be with you when you die, and will it be someone strong enough that they will be able to steady and stay your eye, to help you transition to paradise? Will you have the requisite patience? Will you be, at least in part, content? Will the sun be shining? And more importantly will you still be able to feel it, still be able to feel what is pleasant? The conditional starts to tip toward the imperative.

Then in the third stanza there’s a more explicit question. When you are on your death bed, will you be longing for Home or looking forward to Heaven? Will your mind at death be on Home or God?

“What was his furthest mind -- Love or God” has two possible meanings. It might mean “Is it Love or God that is furthest from the mind?” or it might mean, “Is it Love or God where the mind has gone the furthest?” Here we have a sliding modifier. Does “further” mean further away, or further towards?

But either way, the next lines suggest an answer, that it is most likely Love the dying one is thinking of, because God, and the future, are unknown. We see this in the question, “What (does) the Distant say –At News that He ceased/ Human Nature/ Such a Day”? Does the "Distant" even register that we are gone? Care, if we are fortunate, is near, here. It’s not in the distant heaven, but close at home where our heart is. “The Infinite power of Home” is the way Dickinson puts it elsewhere.

More questions. What about last wishes? Will you have any? And what will your last wishes be?

All of this great and weighty matter will be summed up in the pivotal moment, and made obvious, by the mere accent of your sigh. The poet is wondering what the dying person’s (your) sigh portended (will portend.) Something else comes through in these lines too. There's an intimacy. The poet can tell what the dying is feeling even by the accent of his sigh. This is an important element to the poem. What is the relationship between the one wondering and the dead? The familiarity intimates love. Our perspective of the dying here, even if, ultimately, the dying is ourselves, is shown to us from eyes of concern.

“Was He confident until Ill fluttered out into ever lasting well” is a great line. The interrogative “W”s have been building in this poem and come to a head in this stanza, so that there is a wallop to that “was” and “well” beginning and ending the sentence. Also, the “well” caps the internal rhyme in the line of “until” and ill”. Then there is the word choice of “fluttered”, a verb which suggests so much, the trembling of death throes as well as an angel’s wings.

All of that poetry put in service of asking: will you be able to hold onto the Good (& well) in the face of the Terrible (& ill)?

Stanza 5 comes back to asking, who will be your dearest one? Who, in the end, will be the last person on your mind? There is a very interesting alternative word choice here for “last”, which is “first”. The first name on your mind in the presence of death is also your last.

The final stanza asks whether the one dying was (will be) afraid or tranquil? Death, for most of us, is scary, but we are attempting to prepare ourselves for a tranquil exit. We want to be like the first Thane of Cawdor, of whom Malcolm said, “Nothing in his life like became him like the leaving it.” I’ve heard it said that our whole life is but a preparation for our death. If so, the questions in this poem may lead the way.

I love the question, “How conscious will consciousness grow?” That question might be being asked here about the afterlife; will we still be conscious after we die, and will the consciousness then become more conscious? The question could also be asked of the dying, the not yet dead: How conscious has your consciousness grown? Are you conscious enough to be at peace? The question is speculative, and maybe even hopeful, if applied to the afterlife, but it is transformative when applied to the self before death.

As if all of that death meditation had not been enough, Dickinson hits us between the eyes with the final thought.

Will our conscious mind grow so conscious that it finds the crossroads between the love we felt in the past and a future perfect love, the love “too best to be” (the superlative love that may not even exist as anything but an ideal). The place where those two meet, says the poet, is “eternity”, which I take to mean the eternal present. This sets us up perfectly for a poem coming up, Fr 690, which begins with the line, “Forever is composed of Nows”.

One more detail worth noting about this poem. It's very minor, but it made me smile. After every stanza there is a dash, until the last one. This is fitting since the poem ends on the word Eternity

- /)dam Wade I)eGraff

  "Deathbed Scene" -Octave-Toussert, 1850

* This poem is a good example of how difficult it can be to lineate Dickinson's poems. This poem suggests pentameter, but the meter breaks down in the third stanza where the lines appear to be deliberately truncated and capitalized. So you either stick with the poem as hand-written, or you get creative with line breaks. After some deliberation I went with the former.

1 comment:

  1. ED’s obsession with how people die: what they do, what they say, how they behave, occasionally appear in her letters and poems. As ‘To know just how He suffered’ (F688, 1863) demonstrates, “The Craft of Dying”, Ars Moriendi, fascinated her. What sets this poem apart is that the “He” (in caps) hasn’t yet died. Nevertheless, ED wonders what Charles Wadsworth (1814-1882), the love of her life, will say and do when he dies.

    She closes the poem with her firm belief that she and “He” will “Meet – and the Junction be Eternity” in Heaven:

    “Might He know
    How Conscious Consciousness – could grow –
    Till Love that was – and
    Love too best to be –
    Meet – and the Junction be Eternity”.