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20 August 2011

Could live—did live—

Could live—did live—
Could die—did die—
Could smile upon the whole
Through faith in one he met not,
To introduce his soul.

Could go from scene familiar
To an untraversed spot—
Could contemplate the journey
With unpuzzled heart—

Such trust had one among us,
Among us not today—
We who saw the launching
Never sailed the Bay!
                                                           - F 59 (1859)

The poem starts with the tolling of bells—two dimeter lines of spondees kick it off. And sure enough, the bells have tolled for a believer. The poem is written as a send-off and tribute to the faith of the departed. It may be that Dickinson’s whole heart wasn’t into the compliment here of someone contemplating the journey into the ‘undiscovered country’ with an ‘unpuzzled heart’—for surely Dickinson spent much of her life as a poet grappling with the mystery of what that journey is and where it might take us. She is probably being quite serious when she says that no one here today (as if this poem was written to be read on a funeral day—perhaps attached to some flowers, or at least as if it were attached to some flowers or even read to the assembled mourners) had his uncomplicated faith in the ‘one he met not’. Her own faith was certainly more complicated.
            The last stanza repeats the common metaphor of the soul being launched into the sea of death to reach, hopefully, the other side where peace and eternal life await at last.


  1. Inspired by the TV series Dickinson, I've started reading one of Emily's poems each morning during my journal time. I happened upon your blog as I tried to puzzle out some of the more opaque poems. Thank you so much for posting this, and continuing to post! I love checking in with "the Bee" each morning!

    1. Thank you! I had, several years ago, decided to go through the complete poems -- but started finding a lot of them mystifying. I should work on this, I thought. Hey -- I'll blog it! Readers like you make it extra worthwhile.

  2. I'm so glad you took on the project!! What are some of your favorite sources for interpreting her poems?

  3. I like Vendler's Dickinson -- but there are just 100 poemsthere. Cynthia Wolff's Emily Dickinson is very good on many poems. I really like two books by Judith Farr: The Gardens of Emily Dickinson and The Passion of emily Dickinson. But a lot of Dickinson's poems don't have much written about them -- at least not that I have on my shelf or in the Google.

    If you don't have Sewall's Life of emily Dickinson, it would be a great book to have -- and he discusses quite a few poems, too.

  4. Benjamin Franklin Newton fits the descriptors of all the lines except the last two; ED did not see him die (in 1853) or attend his funeral. Perhaps it's not important who the poem honors, but I'm curious.