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.