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26 August 2011

Delayed till she had ceased to know—

Delayed till she had ceased to know—
Delayed till in its vest of snow
Her loving bosom lay—
An hour behind the fleeting breath—
Later by just an hour than Death—
Oh lagging Yesterday!

Could she have guessed that it would be—
Could but a crier of the joy
Have climbed the distant hill—
Had not the bliss so slow a pace
Who knows but this surrendered face
Were undefeated still?

Oh if there may departing be
Any forgot by Victory
In her imperial round—
Show them this meek apparreled thing
That could not stop to be a king—
Doubtful if it be crowned!
                                                                - F 67 (1859)

The ‘surrendered face’ of the dead woman indicates that she didn’t die confident in imminent Paradise and the joys of heaven. Instead, she was defeated: ‘Doubtful’ if she were to have the crown symbolic of the exalted state of expired saints.
            The tone of pity has almost a patronising air. If only, the second stanza suggests, the ‘bliss’ of faith had arrived earlier, the ending would have been quite different. The speaker is sad because the woman who died had a ‘loving bosom’ and so was probably a mother and devoted wife. Yet, looking at her corpse, the poet dismisses her as a ‘meek apparelled thing’  that might serve as an example to others to urge them to faith.
            The first stanza says that something or someone was delayed for an hour. The last line seems to say that it was ‘Yesterday’—as if the woman died ‘today’ an hour or so after midnight. But it is also the speaker who was delayed, along with Yesterday. Yesterday’s dinner and attendant duties, or perhaps Yesterday’s inclement weather delayed the speaker. But by the time she arrives the woman had died.
            The second stanza gives several alternatives that might have improved the moment of death: if the woman had known in advance, she might have been better prepared; if the speaker or other friend of good faith had arrived in time to encourage her, her spirits might have been uplifted; and finally, if the bliss that comes with awareness of the paradise that lies just ahead had been there before death, the woman would have had a joyous death.
            The third stanza is a bit troubling. Here it is suggested that Victory, the triumph over the grave by attainment of heaven, is unreliable enough that some ‘departing’ souls may not receive a visit. That’s not very comforting! What is to be done for these poor souls? Why, show them the dead housewife, ‘this meek apparelled thing’ and that should scare them into bliss! hmmm… I don’t think so. The last lines make it plain that meekness can undermine faith. This woman was so weak she doubted that she would receive a crown. That’s not faith. She just went ahead and died without waiting for the crowning moment of passing over. So instead of a glorious spirit, what remains is just an ‘apparreled thing’: a heap of filled clothes.
            This is another of those poems that today would not give anyone comfort. But those crazy Victorians had a sort of romance with death, so perhaps these sentiments would have sparked nods and assenting murmurs.


  1. Dear Susan, thank you for your blog, it is always a source of inspiration and invaluable insights. I always feel disappointed when I read a new ED poem and fail to find your comment on it. Hope, some day you’ll review them all.
    This one looks quite a riddle to me. However, I found somewhere on the Internet a hypothesis that it may be about the death of Cordelia, and the idea struck me as quite plausible. ED could have captured the moment in the play when Cordelia is dead, and King Lear is still alive, and when Alban says that he should get his crown back. I am a bit at a loss though with the phrase “That could not stop to be a king” – it might mean both that he failed to stop himself and gave away his crown (although, according to Shakespeare, he still retained his royal title), or that he could not help being a king event after he lost his mind (until he lost Cordelia). I am inclined to believe the latter explanation.

    1. I love reading interpretations like this. It gives going back over the poems renewed interest. And even if it seems a bit far fetched I remember Dickinson's readings and influences that of course would inspire images and metaphors. So I went along quite happily with the Cordelia interpretation until, as you point out, the last line. The last two, I think, pretty clearly suggest that a crown was something to be claimed (or at least acknowledged), not something already enjoyed .

      And thanks for the compliment! I do want to go back to writing about more poems. I have been side tracked by writing gardening articles lately...

    2. Susan, thank you for your reply. I look forward to your writings about ED. This is not a mere compliment, this is true. They are very helpful.