Search This Blog

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....

  4. Harriet Matthews, the eight- year-old daughter of Richard Matthews, the Dickinson stableman, died of scarlet fever on November 1 (Johnson 1958, Note on L195, 11/6/1858)

  5. In 1924 Martha Dickinson Bianchi (1866-1943), Susan Dickinson’s second child, ED’s niece, published a 386-page biography, ‘The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson’, based on memories growing up 100 yards west of ED’s Homestead, stories her mother told, her own interactions with her aunt, and poems and letters she read. Modern historians take Bianchi’s 50-year-old memories with a pinch of salt, but her stories also contain a dollop of truth.

    One story in particular Bianchi remembered, a mixture of fact and fiction, concerned her mother, whom ED often referred to as Sister Sue (“One Sister have I in our house, / And one, a hedge away”, F5):

    “Sister Sue looked up from her sewing to see Lavinia, pallid and breathless from running, who grasped her wrist with hurrying hand, urging: "Sue, come! That man is here! - Father and Mother are away, and I am afraid Emily will go away with him!" But the one word he implored, Emily would not say. Unable to endure his life under the old conditions, after a short time he left his . . . home and silently withdrew with his wife and an only child to a remote city, a continent's width remote, where echo at least could not mock him with its vain outcry . . . ” (p. 47).

    Johnson dates ‘Twas just this time, last year, I died’ 1862, Franklin more specifically “about summer 1862”, which implies ED “died” in summer 1861.

    An interpretation:

    About this time last summer Master told me he was considering leaving Philadelphia for a ministry in San Francisco. I felt I died that day. I heard the tasseled corn when my hearse passed.

    I thought how yellow the corn would look when our stableman took it to mill, and then I wanted to get out of my coffin, but something held me in.

    I thought about how red apples looked wedged between the stubble's joints and how the carts went round the fields, stooping to take the pumpkins in.

    I wondered who would miss me least when Thanksgiving came and if Father would make sure Vinnie and Austin received equal servings of my food.

    I also wondered whether my absence would mar their Christmas glee and my stocking would hang too high in heaven for Santa Claus to reach my altitude.

    But thinking these thoughts made me sad, so instead I thought how just this time some perfect year, you, Charles Wadsworth, would join me in Heaven.