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15 October 2011

A throe upon the features—

A throe upon the features—
A hurry in the breath—
An ecstasy of parting
Denominated "Death"—

An anguish at the mention
Which when to patience grown,
I've known permission given
To rejoin its own.
                                                      - F 105 (159)  71

There is another type of ecstasy described here than that described in the previous poem where a Summer’s Day brought an ecstasy. This one comes at the moment of death. It’s a bit grim, really. The dying person has a spasm of pain and a bit of panting. When told that death draws near, the sufferer grows patient. The poet remarks that she has, I suppose in similar cases, seen a “permission given” for the soul to move on to the next world where friends and family await.
            Dickinson writes, and not just here, as if she were familiar with deathbed scenes. I read somewhere that she wouldn’t have had much of this experience. If true, then she spent a great deal of time imagining what the final moments are like. Certainly many of her poems study the crossing over, the small ship setting sail or the brave or suffering soul poised to make the transition.
            The poem lists the signs of death: “A throe,” “A hurry,” “An ecstasy,” “An anguish.” And then there is the transformation: These disruptions give way to “patience” and only then is “permission” granted for earthly life to depart. No hint is given as to where this permission comes from, but the implication is that the afterlife isn’t to be entered in the messy state of pain, ecstasy, or anguish. Dickinson tends to leave out phrases typically considered convenient to readers, such as who or what is feeling anguish or giving permission. This compresses the poem and intensifies the emotion – and requires the reader to pause and read each line carefully.

1 comment:

  1. ED’s description of dying may be accurate for some deaths but its first stanza is only partly right in my experience. My much loved 90-year-old mother-in-law died quietly without throes, her breath rate slowed to four per minute, her heart rate raced to 200 beats per minute in a last quiet cling to life.

    What rings true in 'A throe upon the features' is ED’s mention of “permission given”. During the last hour, the hospice nurse said she was waiting for her granddaughter, a trained end-of-life counsellor, who had spent many hours on the phone talking with her grandmother about death. The nurse was right. Within minutes of Kerry’s arrival and quiet gift of permission to die, her grandmother’s heart stopped beating.