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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.

  2. ED personified her plants so much that her poems may seem to be about a person when they are actually about a flower or her garden. This riddle poem, ‘Delayed till she had ceased to know’, may be an example. To begin, here is a comment I made a few days ago about ‘Baffled for just a day or two’, Fr 66 (1859):

    “The New England Farmer, 1859 edition (published in Springfield, MA, 23 miles south of Amherst) reported that spring of 1859 “opened very early, the ground being in condition for plowing in the latter part of March, continued very forward, and as a whole was very fine. The trees, "arrayed themselves in green" with more than usual rapidity ; cherry trees were in full bloom on the 9th [of March], and apple trees by the 18th, at least, a week in advance of last year, ten days ahead of 1857, and three days earlier than the average for the last half century.” (Article dated June 8, 1859)

    “ED, who was known in Amherst for her gardening skills and her scientific interest in botany, would certainly have noticed the early spring, her garden flowers blossoming earlier than usual. At first ED was baffled, then embarrassed [first definition of ‘embarrassed’ in Harvard’s Dickinson Lexicon is “confused”], but not afraid, to encounter this “unexpected Maid”, so early in her garden. The Maid “beckoned” and the trees "arrayed themselves in green"; She nodded, and ED’s garden bloomed. Surely, ED had never seen such a spring.”

    However, Job (1:21) tells us that “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away;”, and that is certainly true for spring and summer, 1859. Later in the 1859 edition of The New England Farmer we learn “Three frosts occurred during the month [June]; on the mornings of the 6th, 11th , and 12th, the first and last being very severe over the whole northern parts of the United States…….[The frost] on the 12th was the most severe in this section [western Massachusetts], doing great injury, not only to crops, but to vegetation in general. The grass and leaves of plants and shrubs were frozen stiff in many localities, and the ground in moist, plowed fields was frozen to a depth of one-fourth to one-half inch. ………….. Many gardens seemed nearly ruined, and many fields of corn and potatoes never recovered fully from the effects.”

    As if frosts were not enough punishment for Job, The New England Farmer also tells us “A remarkably heavy shower occurred on the 29th of June and was very destructive from hail and wind…… Hail also fell on the evening of the 29th of July, from the size of a pea to that of a hazelnut.” (Article dated September 2, 1859)

    (See next comment)

  3. ED was no Job; the bumper sticker on her buggy read: DON’T MESS WITH EMILY! :

    “I had some things that I called mine—
    And God, that he called his –
    Till, recently a rival Claim
    Disturbed these amities.

    The property, my garden,
    Which having sown with care –
    He claims the pretty acre –
    And sends a Bailiff there.

    The station of the parties
    Forbids publicity,
    But Justice is sublimer
    Than arms, or pedigree.

    I'll institute an "Action"—
    I'll vindicate the law—
    Jove! Choose your counsel—
    I retain "Shaw"!

    Fr101 (1859). Lemuel Shaw was the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, 1830-1860.

    ‘Delayed till she had ceased to know’, begins an hour before dawn on the morning of June 12, when hard frost killed ED’s garden. An hour later, when it was light enough to see the damage, ED found her garden lying dead outside her door, frozen stiff with a white vest of hoarfrost, lagging 24 hours behind the light frost of yesterday, June 11.

    If only her garden had guessed that this hard frost would come, if only an angel from heaven had climbed the distant hill and announced the slow approach of death, which is the end of sorrow, then her garden might have defended itself instead of lying here dead with its expressionless face of frost.

    The poem end with a request and an admonition: Oh if there are any surviving flowers that the grave overlooked in its imperial round, please, angels, show them this meek frost-covered garden, which, had it lived but one more hour, might have been a king, if only it had believed it would be crowned.

    ED wrote two versions of this poem; in the first, given to Susan D (Image A at Harvard), Stanza 3 reads “Oh if there may remaining be / Any forgot by Victory”, not 'departing be'.

    First Corinthians 15:55, KJV, reads “O grave, where is thy victory?”