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05 October 2012

Afraid! Of whom am I afraid?

Afraid!  Of whom am I afraid?
Not Death—for who is He?
The Porter of my Father's Lodge
As much abasheth me!

Of Life?  'Twere odd I fear a thing
That comprehendeth me
In one or two existences—
Just as the case may be—

Of Resurrection?  Is the East
Afraid to trust the Morn
With her fastidious forehead?
As soon impeach my Crown!
                                                            F345 (1862)  608

After a lot of exciting poetry about liking a look of agony on the dying, of seeing ghosts, and of “bleak dreaded” Woe, Dickinson gives us a breather with this rather anodyne poem about facing life and death bravely. Why not, she wonders. Death is nothing more than the “Porter” who lets people into the lodge of heaven. So no fearing death. But what about life? Surely there are sorrows and pains and uncertainties—things Dickinson has written quite movingly about before. But here the poet takes the position that life is not to be feared because, after all, Life in general encompasses life at the individual level. Why should the part be afraid of the whole?
            She notes in almost a throw-away line that Life shouldn’t be feared because it “comprehendeth” or encompasses her whether she has one or two existences “as the case may be.” That’s an interesting way of showing skepticism about the afterlife. Maybe there is an existence after our earthly one—or maybe not! Whatever.
Porter helping new arrival 
            The final stanza presents a straw man argument. Dickinson wonders if she should be afraid of the resurrection. Since the resurrection is supposed to be like spring, a rebirth and living again, why would anyone think she would be afraid of it? But she gives us the answer. No, we shouldn’t be afraid because the East doesn’t fear the sunrise coming to give birth to another day. One of the best lines in this otherwise forgettable poem is the penultimate one where “Morn” comes “With her fastidious forehead.” Each day, I think she is saying, presents a new chance, a clean slate. The sun comes up and the land fills with light. Why, the poet says, she’d just as soon disparage her own headdress and any glory she might receive in the afterlife (“as the case may be”). The word “Crown” suggests both those meanings: the crown of glory in heaven as well as the crown of maidenhood.


  1. I'm see you're not much on this poem; it seems her almost defiant stance here could only be taken after she had glimpsed or met her death, a bit of knowledge she hasn't fully assimilated, almost the boast of a precocious child.

  2. Its complicated in senses but who can you be afraid more then yourself when your the only person who can truly understand. Not always such as we have counter arguments with ourselves but if others can understand you, neither can you understand them.

  3. “Of Whom Am I Afraid?”

    by James Tate

    I was feeling a little at loose ends, so I went to the Farmer’s Supply store and just strolled up and down the aisles, examining the merchandise, none of which was of any use to me, but the feed sacks and seeds had a calming effect on me. At some point there was an old, grizzled farmer standing next to me holding a rake, and I said to him, “Have you ever read much Emily Dickinson?” “Sure,” he said, “I reckon I’ve read all of her poems at least a dozen times. She’s a real pistol. And I’ve even gotten into several fights about them with some of my neighbors. One guy said she was too ‘prissy’ for him. And I said, ‘Hell, she’s tougher than you’ll ever be.’

    When I finished with him, I made him sit down and read The Complete Poems over again, all 1,775 of them. He finally said, ‘you’re right, Clyde, she’s tougher than I’ll ever be.’ And he was crying like a baby when he said that.

    Clyde slapped my cheek and headed toward the counter with his new rake. I bought some ice tongs, which made me surprisingly happy, and for which I had no earthly use.

    Tate, James.  “Of Whom Am I Afraid?”, TriQuarterly; Evanston, Ill. Vol. 113, (Summer 2002): p. 156

    1. Oh, this is great! Thank you!

  4. The last-line punch: “[I would] as soon impeach my crown” [as fear my Resurrection!]” (ED Lexicon: impeach = judge as unfit).

    She’s right, we fans prove she rose from the dead; All Hail, Queen of Pithy Ambiguity!