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14 January 2012

Dust is the only Secret –

Dust is the only Secret –
Death, the only One
You cannot find out all about
In his "native town."

Nobody knew "his Father" –
Never was a Boy—
Hadn't any playmates,
Or "Early history" –

Industrious! Laconic!
Punctual! Sedate!
Bold as a Brigand!
Stiller than a Fleet!

Builds, like a Bird, too!
Christ robs the Nest –
Robin after Robin
Smuggled to Rest!

                                                F166 (1860)  153

The mystery of death: that and the dust we are buried in are really the only secrets – at least the primary ones the great thinkers contemplate – because what we believe will happen when we die dictates how we live.
            Dickinson takes a rather playful approach here. She anthropomorphizes Death, marveling that unlike normal folk you can’t go look him up or check out his past by going to his “native town.” Today, of course, we would just Google him. No, Death comes to us fully formed: no father, no childhood.
Scott Gearhart
            In the third stanza she ventures a series of character traits that ‘friends’ or acquaintainces might attribute to him: hard working, few words, on time, calm, bold, and “Stiller than a Fleet” – which I take to mean the stately repose of ships on the water. And what could be “stiller” than Death (or more industrius)? The stanza reminds me of newspaper write ups when some one has died or committed a crime. Different people pipe up to talk about the subject.
            The final stanza introduces the Christian aspect: Although Death might be building his grave nests as fast as he can, Christ “robs” the souls from them. Soul after soul are “Smuggled” to their heavenly rest. It’s kind of fun to see Death as a bird building a cozy nest while Christ is here cast as a grave robber.


  1. First, a comment from a grammar nazi: In Line 5 there’s an obvious grammatical error, “Nobody know his ‘Father’”. Franklin read ED’s handwriting as “know” and left it uncorrected. Johnson either reads the written word as “knew” or took editorial prerogative in his metadata, “Nobody knew”. Unfortunately, Harvard’s Dickinson Archive has been offline for a week or more, so we can’t judge for ourselves.

    Now, an insight from 1949, a time Dickinson’s place in American poetry was still an open question:

    “Emily Dickinson did not fear death because she could not believe in eternal damnation; rather, she looked forward to it as an adventure, the passing through a door, the answer to a riddle, the end to her own private Calvary, and perhaps - just perhaps - reunion with all her friends and relatives and especially with the man [?] she loved.

    “As she grew older, Emily seemed almost to woo death, and she spoke more and more affectionately of "that old imperator," sometimes half in jest: "Ah! dainty-dainty Death!" she wrote to a friend. "Ah! Democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden, the deep to his bosom calling the serf's child!” (McNaughton 1949; [bracket mine]).

    That’s amazing.

    McNaughton, R.F., 1949. Emily Dickinson on Death, 1949, Prairie Schooner , 23(2): 203-214.

  2. Both manuscripts clearly say "knew", Franklin's first obviously unintentional transcription mistake, to my knowledge.

  3. I wonder whether "Robin after Robin" is also a puckish pun, as in "Robbing after Robbing".