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22 February 2012

'Tis Anguish grander than Delight

'Tis Anguish grander than Delight
'Tis Resurrection Pain –
The meeting Bands of smitten Face
We questioned to, again –

'Tis Transport wild as thrills the Graves
When Cerements let go
And Creatures clad in Miracle
Go up by Two and Two –

                                                            - F192  (1861)  984

Some Dickinson scholars have argued that while Dickinson had earthly passion for at least one of her loves (Bowles, Wadswroth, or Lord, for example), she believed in a heavenly marriage where consummation would be much much better than anything earth has to offer. If, as scholars have argued, she did not believe in a fleshly resurrection, this consummation would involve a spiritual ecstasy.
            This poem describes the “Transport” of a real, though not fleshly, Resurrection and a consequent pairing. Dickinson begins the poem with the idea of  a grand pain, an “Anguish grander than Delight.” This is an emotion we don’t really have a name for. She wants us to imagine what it would mean to wake from the dead. The wrinkled “bands” of our damaged and decayed faces would furrow together with the immensity of the experience. Surely there would be an anguish involved in being roused from the sleep of death. The disorientation would be severe, and a million questions would come to mind.
 But the “Resurrection Pain” wouldn’t be just a major hurt – it would be an awesome event and a transporting delight – an excitement so wild that even the “Graves” will be thrilled as the “Cerements,” or grave clothes, are dropped. The Resurrected are no longer really people in this vision; Dickinson carefully refers to them as “Creatures.” And consistent with the scholars’ view that she did not believe in fleshly resurrection, these Creatures are clad only in Miracle. It seems that the Cerements are more than just clothes – they are the fleshly and physical aspect of  Being as well.
This is not the sort of
Resurrection the poet
had in mind -- at
least I hope not!
   Perhaps the oddest line in the poem is that after all this has happened – the awakening, the anguish, the transport, the shedding of Cerements – the Creatures “Go up by Two and Two,” presumably to heaven. Why two and two? Would little children not go with their parents? What about the unmarried? I wonder if this doesn’t hint at that Platonic idea that each person has his or her other half. At resurrection these two halves would be reunited – even if they had not been married to each other. This would be convenient for Dickinson, to be a bit catty, as both Bowles and Wadsworth were married men!
            The strongest line of the poem is the penultimate one: “And Creatures clad in Miracle.” One reason this is such a strong line – in addition to the nice image it produces, is the hard “C” sounds: Creatures, clad, and Miracle.

** NOTE: on re-reading this post I see I missed the allusion to Noah's Ark in the Creatures going up "Two and Two." Just as the animals were paired with their mates as they were tucked into the Ark where they could safely ride out the destruction of the world by flood, so Dickinson's creatures are paired as they rise to Heaven, their safe and forever home. It's a nice parallel and I'm surprised I didn't see it before!


  1. ‘To experience sexual orgasm’ is a time-honored definition of ‘to die’ (Oxford English Dictionary, downloaded 12/26/2022):

    1600, William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing,

    Claudius:. “Nay but I know who loves him…and in despite of all, dies for him.”
    Prince: “She shall be buried with her face upwards.”

    1712 Alexander Pope, Rape of Locke,
    “Nor fear'd the Chief th' unequal Fight to try, Who sought no more than on his Foe to die.”

    1974, John Denver, Annie's Song, “Come let me love you... Let me die in your arms.”

    Whatever immortal leanings ED might have attached to this little ditty, she was far too well versed in literature to have been oblivious to its sexual connotations:

    Stanza 1, Expectations of ecstasy and a little perfunctory doubt about whether the smitten twosome think proceeding wise.

    Stanza 2, Thrills of wild transport, naked bodies clad in peace that passeth all understanding, dripping with divinity (Philippians 4:7).

    1. Well… that’s interesting! But would be stronger, to me, if ‘to die’ were in the poem vs. emphasis on Resurrection.

  2. A one-stanza Variant A, composed about 1861, preceded the two-stanza Variant B, which dates from about 1865 (Franklin 1998). Variant A was a single quatrain, very similar to Stanza 2 of Variant B, comprising a note addressed “Sue” and signed “Emily”, but with a different first line and the word “Victory” instead of "Miracle”.

    The first line may refer to an intimate morning they had shared during the early 1850s before Austin entered the picture, or the line could refer to eternal consummation of their love in heaven.

    "I'm thinking on that other morn --
    When Cerements -- let go --
    And Creatures -- clad in Victory --
    Go up -- by two -- and two!"