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06 February 2013

The Months have ends—the Years—a knot—

The Months have ends—the Years—a knot—
No Power can untie
To stretch a little further
A Skein of Misery—

The Earth lays back these tired lives
In her mysterious Drawers—
Too tenderly, that any doubt
An ultimate Repose—

The manner of the Children—
Who weary of the Day—
Themself—the noisy Plaything
They cannot put away—

                                                      F417 (1862)  J423)

In this very feminine approach to death, Dickinson casts the earth as a loving mother tenderly putting her tired children to bed after a long and tiring day. Our lives, like the mother’s knitting, unwind from a skein. Its final knot is permanent, “No Power can untie” it. In 1819, John Keats mused that “I have been half in love with easeful Death / Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme” (from “Ode to a Nightingale"). To Keats, Death is an object of desire. The poet calls him and one supposes that one day the dread lover will appear.
        In Dickinson’s poem, despite months and years drawn out in “Misery,” the “tired lives” are not calling out for easeful Death. Instead, like children who insist on playing long after they have wearied of the game, people cling to life even when it has lost its pleasure. It's Mother, finally, not Lover, who finally puts an end to it. Unlike Keats who views death as a final merging with a mystical Other, Dickinson would have a mother – perhaps because her own mother was an invalid  – kindly and “tenderly” tuck her little charges back into “her mysterious Drawers.” The image calls up not only our mothers’ dressers (and what child has never stealthily opened her mother’s mysterious drawers), but a graveyard where the dead are tucked in in their coffins and shut up in earth. Death, then, in Dickinson’s vision, is not a sentient figure; it is just the state of rest for Earth’s tired children.
        We see nothing of Dickinson’s frequent cynicism towards God and Heaven. A child feels safe with her mother and abandons herself to her when she is tired or sick. Likewise, Mother Earth is so tender in her task that no one could doubt the children will sleep deeply in “ultimate Repose.” 
        When I read this poem as an idle contemplation about death, I read it as a pleasant fantasy with a few good turns of phrase. But when I read it contextually in the 1862 of the USA, I have to think of the huge numbers of soldiers dying in the Civil War. With this in mind I’m irritated by the poem. How can Dickinson, knowing that tens of thousands of young men are dying in appalling conditions, write about death as so gentle?
          But then  I re-read the last stanza and think that Dickinson is reflecting on the  larger picture. Humans are children: conscious and driven, but without self knowledge and wisdom. They themselves are “the noisy Plaything / They cannot put away,” for who can put herself away? Where is the problem if not in ourselves? What is the most common source of our misery if not ourselves? Consequently, we need someone to put us out of our misery. Enter kindly, motherly death.
        This may be Dickinson’s slant response to the epic battle going on: it is a foolish and childish fighting game, part of the miserable skein of human existence. The many who who die at it are tucked away to an abiding rest.
        Dickinson does leave us with a mystery. Once we are buried in those deep drawers, what happens? Is it just an ultimate Repose or will there be a re-awakening? I can read the poem both ways.

    The poem is written in common hymn or ballad form. I think the poem would make a nice song. Read it as you hum “Amazing Grace” and see if you don’t like it.


  1. Susan, this blog is like a band of gold coursing through the internet!

  2. I enjoy these close readings of one of my favorite poets!

    In this one though, I don't understand your reference to John Keats in 1884. It seems that your dates are off.

    1. Yes, I should have been clearer on the Keats, but I was making a rather loose comparison: Dickinson with her children who do not want to go to bed but being eased there by a watchful and loving mother, vs. Keats' romanticizing of Death as something desirable as a lover might be desirable. Is it a generational shift, a male/female difference, or the classic vs. romantic views? I think Dickinson's depiction is not only very feminine, but also goes more against the grain of her culture than did Keats.

    2. Keats died in 1821...

  3. The drawer image reminds me of the dresser in ED's own bedroom where her poems were neatly tied into fascicles and resurrected, to live for generations beyond the death of the poet.

  4. How often it takes years or
    Realizing they were slip knots
    We tied and cannot put awayin drawers
    noisy children at play

    the drawers could very well refer to
    earths burying places, ours in fact,
    earth being divinely neutral. What has been
    tied up and neatly stored, remains.
    We go out to play. Like children at any age
    we continue to distract ourselves

    No divine feminine power can untie
    or realize the knots
    that continue after months end.
    The misery ends in the
    ready realization
    that the knots were only slip knots.

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  6. Knot, Naught, Nothing.
    All Skeins end in nothing.
    Like Children weary at the end of Day,
    They hope to find ultimate Repose.
    Like noisy Playthings,
    They search for mysterious sleeping Drawers,
    But like Macbeth, they find Nothing.

    “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.”

  7. Hi there, thank you so much for this wonderful blog. So helpful. I appreciate that you share the context of her world, and the idea that the horrors of war shaped this one really gives more ideas how to make sense of it. Perhaps it presumes that in war the laying of the lives to rest would feel somehow tender given the tormented moments that preceded it?

    1. And now I think of the young men who must have called for their mothers at the end.