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08 April 2012

I should not dare to leave my friend,

I should not dare to leave my friend,
Because – because if he should die
While I was gone – and I – too late – 
Should reach the Heart that wanted me – 

If I should disappoint the eyes
That hunted – hunted so – to see – 
And could not bear to shut until
They "noticed" me – they noticed me – 

If I should stab the patient faith
So sure I'd come – so sure I'd come – 
It listening – listening – went to sleep – 
Telling my tardy name – 

My Heart would wish it broke before – 
Since breaking then – since breaking then – 
Were useless as next morning's sun – 
Where midnight frosts – had lain!
                                                                             F234 (1861)  205

Dickinson has so far written several poems about deathbed watches and several about having just missed the final hours of a dying person. In one, “Delayed till she had ceased to know,” the poet mourns that she was not there to help ease the dying woman by being a “crier of the joy” of Heaven and so helped transform her  “surrendered face” into an expression of bliss. In another, “I bring an unaccustomed wine,” she is there just before the end but goes away for an hour, missing the actual death and so unable to provide “the tardy glass” that might have slaked her “pilgrim thirst.”
            In this poem, however, Dickinson isn’t writing about comforting dying acquaintances or easing their transition by her ministrations, but her dread that a loved one who needed and wanted her might die in her absence and be disappointed. David Preest writes, “She had made the same point in a letter (L86) of 1852, ‘I look at my father and mother and Vinnie, and all my friends, and I say _ no, cant leave them, what if they die when I’m gone.’”
This poor man died alone
            Dickinson’s point isn’t that she couldn’t bear having missed their last moments so much as she couldn’t bear the thought that a loved one died in a disturbed rather than peaceful state because of her absence. Were this to happen her heart would break but it would be a useless sorrow, just as the warm sun cannot bring a flower back to life if it had been covered with frost all night. Much better, she says, illogically, that it had broken before the death. I’m not sure how that would help the dying except that perhaps the emotionality of it all is in some way beneficial in the last moments.
            Certainly the poem is an emotional and lyrical one. The gentle iambic tetrameter and repeated phrases are lulling. Nearly all of the words are plain and understated. Consequently, the few exceptions sear through, as if branding the lyrics with pain. The disappointed eyes had “hunted – hunted so,” and the context implies a desperation. Her absence would “stab the patient faith / So sure I’d come” as if she had held a knife and murdered something precious.
            Ultimately, then, she would rather have a broken heart before the death rather than after to spare herself the guilt of those hunting eyes, the stabbed faith.


  1. David Sylvian has written a fantastic song using this poem as lyrics.

    1. I found that on youtube -- really well done. Thanks.

    2. Israeli actress/singer Efrat Ben Zur also put this poem to music under the title Til The End (from the album Robin: Poems By Emily Dickinson).

  2. good and awesome it helped me in my project i would like to thank the poetress to write such a wonderful poem

  3. This was confusing to read but I feel so bad for people in a deathbed and to watch it happen is sad.

  4. The choppy repeated partial phrases remind of someone having a difficult time speaking through emotions of grief, as if the friend is on their deathbed at the time.

  5. We the living may presume the dying want family or friends nearby when their time comes. We may underappreciate that time of death is not always uncontrolled. The dying may wait for someone’s coming, for one last squeeze of hands, or wait for someone’s leaving, to spare them pain. We, the living, don’t always know and don’t always get to decide. Guilt trips don't help the dead.

  6. Talk about surprises, 26 of the 103 words in this poem are repetitions [in CAPS below]. How many poems are 25% repetitions? ED enjoyed pushing limits of convention, and here she does it powerfully, like hammering – hammering with a 5-pound sledge.

    Guilty or not, how can you be unmoved by her imagined failure as a friend?:

    It LISTENING – LISTENING – went to sleep –
    Telling my tardy name – ”

    P.S. Do we have another gender switch in Stanza 1?:

    “I should not dare to leave my friend,
    BECAUSE – BECAUSE if he [she] should die
    While I was gone – and I – too late –
    Should reach the Heart that wanted me – ”

  7. Perhaps the death need not be taken literally here. I think Emily is identifying with the friend and describes her own emotional state when she feels abandoned. It hurts so much that she would never cause such pain to anybody. When a certain line is crossed, the relationship may be irreparably damaged.