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. Twenty-two years later, in 1884, 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 Keat, 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.