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12 November 2012

Those fair—fictitious People—

Those fair—fictitious People—
The Women—plucked away
From our familiar Lifetime—
The Men of Ivory—

Those Boys and Girls, in Canvas—
Who stay upon the Wall
In Everlasting Keepsake—
Can anybody tell?

We trust—in places perfecter—
Inheriting Delight
Beyond our faint Conjecture—
Our dizzy Estimate—

Remembering ourselves, we trust—
Yet Blesseder—than We—
Through Knowing—where we only hope—
Receiving—where we—pray—

Of Expectation—also—
Anticipating us
With transport, that would be a pain
Except for Holiness—

Esteeming us—as Exile—
Themself—admitted Home—
Through easy Miracle of Death—
The Way ourself, must come –
                                                                                          F369 (1862)  499

Although the poem seems a straightforward sentiment about the dear departed—their “Blesseder” situation, their heavenly home that is beyond our mortal ability to fathom—Dickinson reminds us from the very beginning that all of this afterlife is “Conjecture,” “Estimate,” and “hope.” In the first line she refers to the dear departed as “Those fair—fictitious People” as if their life after death may be something lifted from a storybook.
The line also suggests that we begin to remember them in ways that are fictitious. The sainted little children whose portraits and pictures freeze them forever in their best or cutest moments, the mothers and sisters whose nurturing homecraft improves with memory, and the “Men of Ivory” whose rectitude is polished over time—all these characters become fictions in the stories their survivors tell themselves and each other. “Can anybody tell?” the poet asks. The question is ambiguous: can we tell where they are now, really? Can we really tell what they were like when alive?
We trust, she says by way of answer to the first question, that they are in a “perfecter” place than earth and that they are experiencing unimaginable “Delight.” We also trust (and Dickinson uses the word twice, perhaps to reinforce the fragility of trust) that they remember us, the ones they left behind. Dickinson wants more than just remembrance, however. She also hopes that the loved ones in heaven will expect and anticipate us with joyful eagerness. And while such a state might be stressful or even painful for a living person, the saints’ “Holiness” makes such transport easy to bear. Or perhaps it is simply their lack of physicality—the sleeplessness, loss of appetite, etc., that the living must suffer through when greatly anticipating something.
The poet hopes the dear departed will be waiting for
us to join them after the "easy Miracle of Death"
In the last stanza she hopes that the dead not only remember and expect us but esteem us as exiles. The exile metaphor suggests someone with a health problem such as tuberculosis that (at least in Dickinson’s day) would prevent their coming home. Just so, we cannot enter heaven until our lives have been “cured” through death. Dying is thus reframed as birth, life as “Exile.” Dying shouldn’t worry us, though, for just as all of us were born through our mother’s birth canal during the miracle of birth (surely a cliché in Dickinson’s time as it is today), so we will, like the dear deparated, experience the “easy Miracle of Death.”
If you accept that death is the logical outcome of life on this earth, and that the corpse returns, molecule by molecule, to the biosphere that birthed it, then death is both easy and non-miraculous. But if you believe, as did Dickinson’s culture, that after death you will be transformed into an eternal and hopefully heavenly being, then it surely is the greatest one-way ticket ever—and certainly a Miracle.


  1. I love "easy Miracle of Death." How many times in life do we here that he or she prayed for a miracle, maybe we also have, and always when death looms, as if the miracle will save us. And she says the Miracle does save us, and it's easy. Wow, talk about turning expectation upside down.

  2. Here, of course, in the previous paragraph, was meant to be "hear."

  3. Float like a butterfly,
    Sting like a bee.

    Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali), 1964, before his fight with Sonny Liston