Search This Blog

19 September 2012

Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord,

Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord,
Then, I am ready to go!
Just a look at the Horses --
Rapid! That will do!

Put me in on the firmest side --
So I shall never fall --
For we must ride to the Judgment --
And it's partly, down Hill --

But never I mind the steepest --
And never I mind the Sea --
Held fast in Everlasting Race --
By my own Choice, and Thee --

Goodbye to the Life I used to live --
And the World I used to know --
And kiss the Hills, for me, just once --
Then -- I am ready to go!
                                                                                          F338 (1862)  279

Dickinson paints a picture for us here of a person at the end of her life as if she were about to embark on a hair-raising carriage ride. This journey is quite different from the one she will describe in “Because I could not stop for Death” where she and the coachman (Death) take a leisurely trip past the mileposts of her life, gradually arriving at eternity. Instead, she asks the lord to tie up the loose ends of her life (or perhaps to untie her from life and tie her to the eternal other side), give her at least a glance at the horses that will convey her from one side of that great divide to the other, and then take off.
                  She is excited about the trip: “Rapid! That will do!” Let’s go, in other words. She only asks to be put on the most secure side of the carriage—she anticipates it might be an up-and-down route for at least part of it is “down Hill.” While it might be common to think of “down” as the Hell side of eternity, I don’t get the sense that Dickinson means that her post mortem trip will be skirting the region of the damned. Instead, she is looking at the transition between this world and the next as an exciting adventure.
                  We saw something of this in “Dropped into the Ether Acre” where the newly dead soul is being carried by “Horses of Blonde—and Coach of Silver” on a “Journey of Down—and Whip of Diamond— / Riding to meet the Earl.” In an 1860 poem, “Exultation is the going,”  Dickinson likened the venturing forth after death to the “going / Of an inland soul to sea,” calling the adventure a “divine intoxication.” In this she shares Shakespeare’s idea of death, at least the idea voiced by Hamlet, as an “undiscovered country.”
                  The poet doesn’t mind the steep road that leads to “Judgment” for she is “Held fast” in the race of life and death by her own choice and by God. No one forced her into this situation. She has been in control and is completely confident.
                  But perhaps her “lord” isn’t God, but her Master lover. Reading the poem this way—and I think one can—we see the poet hell bent on seizing the moment. She doesn’t mind the crazy ride for she has made her choice and she is held secure by her lover. She will let their love take them where it will, abandoning herself to it.
                  But whether one reads the poem as an adventure to the undiscovered country of death or the unpredictable turns of fate in passion, it is clear that the poet is willing to say “Goodbye to the Life” she used to live and is “ready to go!”
                  Dickinson may have penned this poem after one of those long days when her mother was being needy and helpless and her father abrupt and dictatorial. Who wouldn’t be ready to hare off in some totally new direction?


  1. I don't think this needs be at the end of life in a physical sense but the willingness, even command, to ride beyond mundane life at any moment into the mystic's death that brings her to the timeless Judgement with only a brief feeling of sadness, and love, for the Hills she leaves behind.

  2. I often think when reading a poem like this what happened that made the poet sit down and express such thoughts as these. The older we get we think about death more and more, but it also can be as you say that the living is the hard part and death can be welcoming. I thank you for that reasoning.

  3. Susan generously offers two possible identities for “My Lord” in Line 1, God or Master. Franklin dates this poem “about summer 1862”, which would be after Wadsworth abandoned ED for San Francisco, so my bets would be on God.

    In Stanzas 3 and 4 ED tells us she’s “Held fast in Everlasting Race — / By my own Choice, and Thee //
    Goodbye to the Life I used to live — / And the World I used to know —”. We know from other poems that about 1862 ED consciously dedicated the remainder of her life to poetry, for her an inviolable oath until death do them part. She’s not saying, “Goodbye to Life”, but rather, “Hello to Poetry, faithfully and forever”.

    ED offers another choice, a crucial one, in the last line: whether to use “Then” or “Now”. “Now” implies she’s ready to die immediately and “Then” some future time. She listed “Then” first, and that’s what all her editors have chosen. Me too.