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04 October 2012

'Twas just this time, last year, I died

'Twas just this time, last year, I died.
I know I heard the Corn,
When I was carried by the Farms—
It had the Tassels on—

I thought how yellow it would look—
When Richard went to mill—
And then, I wanted to get out,
But something held my will.

I thought just how Red—Apples wedged
The Stubble's joints between—
And the Carts went stooping round the fields
To take the Pumpkins in—

I wondered which would miss me, least,
And when Thanksgiving, came,
If Father'd multiply the plates—
To make an even Sum—

And would it blur the Christmas glee
My Stocking hang too high
For any Santa Claus to reach
The altitude of me—

But this sort, grieved myself,
And so, I thought the other way,
How just this time, some perfect year—
Themself, should come to me –
                                                            F344 (1862)  445

Haven’t we all imagined our death and, sometimes even more satisfactorily, how our family and friends would get on without us? Dickinson pens a poem here on the subject, adopting a pensive autumnal voice as she takes on the persona of a girl who has been dead for a year.
As I write this commentary the pumpkins have ripened into a full and brilliant orange. The pumpkin festival is coming up next weekend and the town will have a parade, a crafts fair, a giant pumpkin weighing, and all kinds of fun. The last of the corn still stands in the field, guarded by some brightly dressed scarecrows.
            It’s a jolly time, yet sad for the bright colors and wonderful harvest produce will soon make way to the more muted colors and chilly dark days of winter. The speaker of the poem—no doubt a child, for she would expect a Christmas stocking—is loath to leave the world at this time. She could hear the corn—and that’s an old saying: so quiet you can hear the corn grow. The stalks still have their silky tassels as if dressed up for the season. The dead girl is carried by the farms on her way to the cemetery and she seems most taken by all the colors: the corn will be very yellow after the farmhand or miller Richard mills it. The apples have fallen among the hay fields, the red fruit “wedged” among the golden straw. She sees the carts “stooping round the fields” as the bright orange pumpkins are harvested.
            All this is consistent with Dickinson’s fascination with the moments after death. For her, the consciousness does not die—at least not right away. Instead it lingers a while on the sights around. Her more famous ones are “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” and “Because I could not stop for death.” In “Dropped into the Ether Acre” she is in a hearse “Riding to meet the Earl.” The sensuousness of these post-death experiences—a buzzing fly, red apples and orange pumpkins, carriage rides—is just about opposite what religious folks might expect. Instead of preparing her soul and contemplating her life, Dickinson and her personas are taking a last long look at the mortal life and world. There is all of eternity to contemplate the soul, heaven, or whatever awaits. We only have the earth for a short time.
            After admiring the cornfields, the speaker wonders if anything of the world will miss her—the familiar farms, fields, and vegetables. This seems to remind her about Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to come and whether or not her father would put out extra plates so that there wouldn’t be one missing. Likewise, she wonders if her absence will dampen the spirits at Christmas. Her stocking will be way out of reach, even for Santa and his flying reindeer.
            However, this sort of thinking is depressing, even for a dead person. Fortunately, the speaker lights on a happier thought: Some “perfect” time in the future, her family will die and so join her. Now that’s the way to cheer up!


  1. I read this as the poet's own mystic death when she was carried beyond herself yet still retained her individual ego, unlike the greater death beyond all she wrote of in the poem beginning I felt a Funeral; here she still longs for connection and community with others

  2. The multiplying of the plates is a little ceremony that recalls the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The host passes around a plate of food and as it goes by the guests take out a plate of their own with a little bit of food or no food, that they have hidden.

    1. Ah! Thank you for that. I'd never even heard of the ceremony.

  3. Dickens’ “Christmas carol” (1843) imagined the life of those left behind absent the dead narrator - the Dickensons were Dickens readers. Shades of Tiny Tim....