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25 December 2011

She died – this was the way she died

She died – this was the way she died.
And when her breath was done
Took up her simple wardrobe
And started for the sun –
Her little figure at the gate
The Angels must have spied,
Since I could never find her
Upon the mortal side.
                                  - F154 (1860)  150

The whole poem turns upon the third and fourth line – otherwise it is banal. The poet no doubt had the image of a small woman or perhaps just a girl, modest suitcase in hand, headed “for the sun.” It is a nice image with its brave but humble traveller headed East, the direction of morning and rebirth. But then the image is wrecked for me by having “Angels” noticing (the clichéd, even in Dickensonson’s day, “spied”) “Her little figure at the gate.” I suppose this is disappointing because we began with the death of an ordinary person, a girl or woman, and a small one at that. Not a power figure. But she is aiming at the sun – a grand destination! We expect something exciting or interesting to happen as the modest meets the great and divine.
            But all that happens is that she ends up at some gate – and there’s no reason given to indicate it’s anything other than a rustic garden gate – that the angels eventually open to let her in.
            The last two lines don’t even make much sense. If you know someone has died, why would you go looking for her “Upon the mortal side”?  As for the first two lines, we expect some interesting detail about “the way she died,” but instead we only get “And when her breath was done.” After that the little wench is off to the sun.
            I’d have to toss this poem in with some of the others already reviewed here that talk about some humble woman or girl’s death in a sweet but banal way.


  1. I agree with your analysis, for most of the part, but find it hard to conceive your opinion that this endearing poem is "banal" in any way.

    1. Yeah, geez, I must have been crotchety that day.

    2. It's so nice for you to admit it. I love your commentary on Emily's poems. You see what most people don't.
      So I was surprised when I read this one. You dismissed it a little too casually.
      It seems to me that the last line is what makes the poem great. She's like a little kid who doesn't understand death and is still hoping to see the person she lost return. The fact that she never does is what convinces her that she's truly dead.
      Btw, I looked for you analysis on "My life had stood a loaded gun" but I can't find it. I would be so grateful if you could do a commentary on that poem as it's one of my favorites yet it's meaning remains a mystery to me. Her other poems I've been able to understsnd on some level. But not that one. I've tried to search online but I'm not satisfied with the explanation I've found.
      Please consider my request. Thank you!

    3. Yes, as I admitted above, I was crotchety or something that day. But I wrote it back when I was trying to do a poem a day and so was doing some quite good ones cheek to jowl with this one -- and just didn't think it compared. But now, having re-visited it a couple of times, I like it quite well.
      As for the Loaded Gun poem -- yes, I'm looking forward to that one because in my past readings I haven't made a lot of sense of it either (although I've read some commentaries). So I look forward to immersing myself in it and hoping for some light. But it is about 140 poems in my future. Unless I take the big step of just picking poems from the rest of Dickinson's corpus instead of doing each one. I hate to abandon my plan even though at my present rate I may not even get half through! because many of the poems are not written about at all.

      Cynthia Grifffin Wolff has good commentary on Loaded Gun. Helen Vendler includes it in her Dickinson book -- and I find her insights always valuable.

    4. I agree with your earlier opinion. I think there is a little bit of banality there but it doesn't make Dickinson less of a poet. It's impossible to write hundreds of poems without some being banal and I dare to say, vapid.

  2. This is a poem I think of every year around this time, as the anniversary of my six year old daughter's death comes around. I find it comforting.

    1. Thank you for joining other readers and helping me see this poem for the warmth and sweet sadness it has. Bless you.

    2. Thank you Kiri for putting us all into perspective.

  3. I find this to be one of the most moving poems Dickinson ever wrote. Having just set it to music, I wept when I first sang it back in my mind. This is the Beatitudes in modern language. Beautiful is not a strong enough term to express what is said here. It is such a wonderful mixture of love, compassion, and empathy. In short: it is poignant.

  4. I just read the poem, and your initial comment given now almost 10 years ago - captured now in perpetuity - and thought yes, this is a different tone of commentary, and loved it! I have had many a time of hidden agendas, and I feel better when others have too. But I have another take on this poem, and the last two lines I think are key. This is a person who was little noticed in life - "Since I could never find her Upon the mortal side " - and was at first little noticed when dead - "Her little figure at the gate [at least] The Angels must have spied" - but now in death she is " starting for the sun." !! Nice thought.

    1. Thanks for the comment -- your insight does make a nice thought!