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05 September 2011

Sexton! My Master's sleeping here.

Sexton! My Master's sleeping here.
Pray lead me to his bed!
I came to build the Bird's nest,
And sow the Early seed—

That when the snow creeps slowly
From off his chamber door—
Daisies point the way there—
And the Troubadour.
                                                - F 75  (1859)  96 
Dickinson has several poems depicting the grave as a cosy home. In F 41 for example, “I often passed the village,” the grave occupant is waiting to enfold a living person in her loving embrace. In this poem the poet’s Master is ‘sleeping’ in his chamber. There is snow on the ground but that doesn’t disturb his sleep. The poet, as befits a student, wants to honor her Master by planting spring flowers and enticing a bird to lay eggs and sing its joyous spring song.. When spring does come the cosy ‘chamber’ will be colorful and cheered by birdsong.
            Spring with its returning flowers and newly hatched birds represents resurrection. And birds, as mentioned earlier, represent the soul. So Dickinson is also symbolically helping the soul on its journey.
            Dickinson’s first ‘Master’ was a young headmaster who died in his twenties. Perhaps she paid a visit to his cemetery and that’s why she needed directions from the Sexton.

1 comment:

  1. There are two candidates for “Master” in ‘Sexton! My Master's sleeping here’:

    Leonard Humphrey was a classmate and fraternity brother of Austin Dickinson who graduated from Amherst Academy in 1846. ED had known Humphrey since 1841 and the two were members of the “Secret Club”, a group of friends who probably shared picnics, parties, Shakespeare readings, and poetry readings. After graduation, Humphrey worked as a tutor and briefly as headmaster at Amherst Academy. ED and Humphrey were good friends who shared their interest in poetry. He died unexpectedly of “congestion in the brain” (aneurysm) on 30 November 1850 at his family home in Weymouth, MA, 100 miles east of Amherst on the Atlantic coast.

    Benjamin Newton, 9 years older than ED and a law intern of ED’s father, recognized ED’s genius as a poet. Her letters and poems about him leave no doubt of her feelings of indebtedness for his encouragement during her formative years. Newton’s home was in Worchester, 50 miles east of Amherst, where he died of tuberculosis 24 March 1853 after a long illness.

    Of the two, Newton seems more likely to be the “Master” whose grave ED visited during a winter of 1854-1858.

    Harvard’s ED Lexicon lists “songbird” as a figurative definition of “troubadour”.