What if I burst the fleshly Gate—
And pass Escaped—to thee!
What if I file this Mortal—off—
See where it hurt me—That's enough—
And wade in Liberty!
They cannot take me—any more!
Dungeons can call—and Guns implore
As laughter—was—an hour ago—
Or Laces—or a Travelling Show—
Or who died—yesterday!
F 305 (1862) 277
Dickinson does a tip of the hat here to Hamlet who was considering suicide. Hamlet was torn between dying and living but ultimately persuaded himself to live rather than explore the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Dickinson’s reference to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is a bit of shorthand: “What if I file this Mortal—off,” which should remind us of Hamlet’s “mortal coil.” Shakespeare’s pertinent passage reads as follows:
|Hamlet was a bit more fearful of what
lay after death than the speaker of this poem
To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause… (Hamlet 3:1)
The poem’s speaker, however, takes no pause to think it over. She is excited to “burst the fleshly Gate” and escape. Mortal life is painful—“See where it hurt me,” she asks. “That’s enough.” But unlike Hamlet who fears “what dreams may come,” the speaker is confident that she will “wade in Liberty!”
The third stanza is full of rhetorical excess: once she is dead, she cannot be put in “Dungeons” or hurt by guns. Dickinson was probably the last person in the U.S.—Union or Confederacy—to worry about guns and dungeons. It’s possible that this is a reference to the Civil War tearing the country apart as she wrote, and that the stanza reflects the point of view of a conscripted soldier who didn’t want to fight. The last stanza, however, with its references to “Laces,” is surely from a woman’s point of view.
The thrust of the poem is the idea of gate-crashing heaven. The speaker gleefully imagines bursting through without waiting for her appointed time. She’ll take her own life, filing off her mortality. The central question of the poem, though, is who the “thee” is that she so much wants to escape to. It might be God or Jesus, or it might be some beloved person who died. After the first stanza the “thee” disappears. The primary attraction of death is that the freedom from the pains of life and even such mundane interests as laughter, clothes, circuses, or the daily obituaries.
The sense of unthinking enthusiasm that permeates the poem is accomplished by rhyme and meter as well as from by the words themselves. The dactylic phrases “What if I say/burst/file” are followed by iambs, as is the line beginning “Dungeons can call.” The dactyls give a rather headlong gallop which is further emphasized by the rhyme scheme: AAB CCB DDB EEB. The poem itself feels ready to gallop off the page.