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24 July 2011

If I should die,

If I should die,
And you should live—
And time should gurgle on—
And morn should beam—
And noon should burn—
As it has usual done—
If Birds should build as early
And Bees as bustling go—
One might depart at option
From enterprise below!
'Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—
That Commerce will continue—
And Trades as briskly fly—
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene—
That gentlemen so sprightly
Conduct the pleasing scene!
                                                                          - F 36 (1858)

Dickinson lists all the things that, if continuing after death, should make 'the parting tranquil' and serene. She begins with scenes from the natural world: beaming morning, burning noon, nest-building birds, and bustling bees. She then makes a complete switch to the economic world, saying that if the natural world would so continue then we could take our 'option' and leave worldly 'enterprise. Stock trading will continue as will commerce. 
   She's being ironic, pretending that when lying with Daisies in the grave, she'd be comforted by knowing sprightly gentlemen are wheeling and dealing as usual. Yet there's a correspondence there. The stock trader bustles like the bee, merchants build their enterprises as birds do their nests.
   The best verbs, however, are reserved for the natural world. Compare: gurgle, beam, burn, build, bustling; vs. stand, continue, fly (okay, that one has a bit of life), and conduct.
     In a larger sense, though, the poet says 'if you are still alive and all these other things are not disrupted by my unremarkable death [and, it is implied, life], then I can go when it suits me and not worry about a thing. How lightly the poet imagines her footprint upon this life. And yet it is true of, what, 99.9 percent of us? How many ripples will  mark our passing?
     The poem presents a much lighter approach to death than we see in her other poems. There is no somberness, no great mystery, no ambiguous divine intent, no talk of paradise or the crossing over thereto. But since in the next 1750 poems I'll encounter plenty of that, I think, I'll take the drollery gladly.
     There's a sprightly mix of complete and slant rhymes. Slant: beam / done / option. Complete: go / below; lie / fly; serene / scene. 


  1. But isn't that 9th line "One might depart at option" also a reference to taking one's own life? OPTing out? Indeed, how else could one read it? So if the speaker would do that and the you (surely someone dear) should still "live" while all these other things, including business, also continue, that continuance is a comfort to the one who opted out, who might lie with those Daisies. I think your reference to "when it suits me" implies that, though as a whole your commentary skirts the full weight of "opting" to depart.

    1. Yes, I was skirting it. It just doesn't *sound* suicidish. And perhaps I was shy ... But you are right, by logic. Plus, Dickinson didn't shy from the examination of being or not being. It's interesting in re-reading in light of your comments that the very brightness of the scenes she sketches serve by design to take the sting out of opting out in such a drastic way.

  2. I don't read anything ominous in line 9 ...unless sarcasm is ominous. It seems to she is making a sharp contrast between the "real" world and the artificial business of commerce. She seems completely tongue-in-cheek ...(as if Emily could really care a whit whether stocks trade, if she is alive or dead, and certainly not in analogous way with nature). Sounds like a put down to me for some distracted business-obsessed person(s).

    And I'm interested in the line "from enterprise below!" following from line 9. Does she mean the "enterprise", i.e. trades, etc., in the lines to follow, or the "enterprise" below ground" after death....or?


    1. I wonder if "enterprise below" doesn't refer to our earthly activities. the implied "above" would be heaven or some such. But now, re-reading this poem, I'm agreeing with you: the "you" in the poem seems a specific person -- someone so busy with the world of commerce that the speaker's death would not be much of an interruption. The tone is lively and droll, though; not bitter or at all pitying.

      The use of "opted out" is probably a droll mimicry of the target's vocabulary. Of course, her family was top heavy with lawyers and commercial venturers. Her father helped bring the railroad to Amherst.

  3. thank you, susan. your blog saved my term paper and my grade for this school year. you're a hero to students everywhere.