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27 March 2013

I read my sentence – steadily –

I read my sentence – steadily –
Reviewed it with my eyes,
To see that I made no mistake
In its extremest clause –
The Date, and manner, of the shame –
And then the Pious Form
That "God have mercy" on the Soul
The Jury voted Him –
I made my soul familiar – with her extremity –
That at the last, it should not be a novel Agony –
But she, and Death, acquainted –
Meet tranquilly, as friends –
Salute, and pass, without a Hint –
And there, the Matter Ends –

                                                                              F432 (1862)  J412

I read this carefully crafted poem as the stoicism of a woman living the life she has decided to live and has made her peace with it despite what the “Jury” of church-ish society may piously pronounce.
          The poem is based on common hymn form: 4-line stanzas with rhyming B/D lines and with alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter. Dickinson compresses the stanzas into one section, perhaps to underline the deposition-like quality. The voice is dry and formal, almost that of the elderly lawyer in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
          Logically, the poem lhas two parts. The first, describing the sentence, is comprised of the eight lines that would have been two stanzas. The second, relating her response to the sentence, is only six lines, but the first two lines of these six can be considered as two lines each compressed into one. I suspect that if the lines had been broken up they would have had an unfortunate sing-song quality:

I made my soul familiar –
With her extremity –
That at the last, it should not be
A novel Agony –

Breaking the lines this way emphasizes the “ee” sounds and the almost over-regularity of the iambs.

But back to the words. The poet is reading a written verdict. She notes the legal qualities as she reads. Her crime, her “shame,” is described and dated. There is an“extremest clause” in which, one suspects, she has received a death sentence. Finally, there is a form, a boilerplate clause, that includes the traditional “‘God have mercy’” on the soul that has just been condemned (or “voted” to God).

          What is the “shame” that caused this grim sentence? I think it could be several things that relate to her resolutely unconventional life: her refusal to join the revival in Amherst and dedicate her life to Jesus – in fact, her refusal to go to church at all – causing the jury to consider her damned. It might be that her refusal to be social and marry would condemn her to a sort of death in life. Yes, she would live on, but it would be as a ghostly person, the sort who flutters about in white in a secluded room, venturing out only as far as the household orchard. The Jury would certainly suggest the Most High have mercy on such a poor soul.
Traditional judge and jury of peers
(Old Bailey)

But perhaps the poet’s sentence stems from her feeling called, compelled, really, to be a poet – and her subsequent odysseys into the darkness and the maelstroms of the heart and the cosmos, her staring into death and detailing what she finds there, and her often bitter insinuations about the fairness and goodness of God.

Readers are certainly not rooting for the jury here with its “Pious Form.” Bah!

We move on to the second section of the poem where the poet reacts. Dickinson adopts what I’ve been calling the Observing Self. This Self notifies the Soul out of kindness, as if it were a dear friend, and then notes what she observes: the Soul is already acquainted with Death (real as well as figurative) –  from staring at it and contemplating it so often, no doubt – and so the death sentence does not phase the Soul. It “tranquilly” meets the requisite Death  after which they “Salute, and pass, without a Hint.” I’m at a bit of a loss about whether that means they pass together out of life, Death escorting her; or whether they meet and pass each other by with nothing said by either about the sentenced doom.

          I suspect it means that the Soul meets Death as if it were an old friend and goes with him. The last line of the poem is too obvious a pun for it to have slipped inadvertently into the poem, and so we are to understand with a smile that the Soul has freed itself from its “Matter” and now wanders in a better place than that which tried to constrain her.
          It’s a clever pun, as the Matter ends in both the legal sense and the physical sense and also it its casual dismissal of the pieties of the jury and the supposed “shame” of what was deemed her crime.

The calm, rational voice of the narrator as she is apprised of her fate is a fine example of choosing your path in life with your eyes wide open.


  1. I don't read the "sentence" as any kind of condemnation of unconventional life choices.

    I read this as a wonderful poem about how a philosopher / poet deals with the existential fact of death. Death is a verdict that enters on the docket the day we are born (to draw on ED's metaphor). Birth is like throwing a ball in the air. Death is the inevitable result of gravity. Or using ED's outrageous metaphor, life is a crime -- and death is the sentence or shame. Cause and effect.

    As a philosopher / poet, ED's life's work has been to become familiar and comfortable with death -- as if death were a friend. ED bifurcates herself, as you note, into a self and a soul. And as a poet she teaches her soul (the soul also a female of course) to become familiar "with her extremity". The extremity is death itself (in life the "extremist clause" -- or the sentence or prospect of death). God's judgment on the soul is here relegated to a legal technicality or a bit of bureaucracy and isn't much concern.

    Death and the soul "salute and pass" -- like old friends who can communicate without the need for words. Your analysis of the last sentence is exactly right -- closing of the law case metaphor and the end of the material self.

    Very beautiful.

  2. Your read makes sense, particularly in thinking of Dickinson's occasional foray into Biblical tales. Eve's shame is passed on to all her daughters. Being born a woman is to be born into shame. A harsher interpretation along these lines is that, as you mention, being born is the crime. God does not come out too well in either of these interpretations.
    I think, however, that the specificity of "The Date, and manner, of the shame" as well as the presence of a Jury indicate a less existential and more societal provenance.
    Thanks for your comments -- interesting as always!

  3. If you read this poem together with "Surgeons must be Very Careful," "If I may have it when it's dead", and "I died for beauty - but was scarce," I think the alternate interpretation of ED carefully reviewing her poems with a friend works well.

    So, she sits with Thomas Higginson or some editor, and reviews all the clauses in her poem. In the process, she goes back to her "extremest clause." The clause that might either be grammatically not sound, or maybe extreme in some other sense, but knows that life stirs there in the clause. She presents her case for the clause (made her soul familiar in all it's extremities) to the editor and surrounding friends who form a jury, but they vote for the dude! 'Novel Agony' could refer to that the extremest clause is actual in unison with the rest of the poem--why remove it when it belongs?

    But, alas, for it's not meant to be--her clause (and her soul by extension) meet death; the clause is scrubbed, and not a trace is left. And, that's it!

    The process could also be simply a singular process. She sits on a poem, say "The Murmur of a Bee," and thinks about the first clause (that is the extreme clause as it is the first). Makes her soul familiar on the page with the line. She then acts as the jury and presents the case for murmur, but it's not meant to be, and 'Murmur' becomes 'Bumble!'

  4. I wonder if she intended the pun in the first sentence as well - reviewing her poetry's sentences and reviewing her life's sentence. So from the first line she sets the stage for reading this on two levels, a contrapuntal poem, about her inner spiritual struggle and her writing. In the beginning she is reading it with her eyes only, her physical self. Then she introduces Him and the Agony, a reference to the Agony of Jesus possibly. ED has steeped herself in this story, become familiar with it so that her own soul will be ready at the end. In the end, she and death are like old lovers, passing without giving a hint of the intensity of the relationship between them. And with that the Matter ends, the reality is transmuted onto an immaterial plane.

    1. Thanks - interesting points. That would make a "novel agony" quite droll.

  5. Longfellow’s 1863 poem, ‘The Theologian’s Tale’, begins:

    “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
    Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
    So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
    Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

    Longfellow published this poem in November 1863 as part of a book, ‘ Tales of a Wayside Inn’, but ED was well aware of new poetry through friends such as Sam Bowles and may have read Longfellow’s poem before she composed her last four lines of ‘I read my sentence – steadily –’ in 1862:

    “But she, and Death, acquainted –
    Meet tranquilly, as friends –
    Salute, and pass, without a Hint –
    And there, the Matter Ends –”

  6. When Wadsworth sailed from NY on May 1, 1862, ED felt as if part of her soul had died. But she had met Death before, and so she had warned her soul:

    “I made my soul familiar – with her extremity –
    That at the last, it should not be a novel Agony –
    But she, and Death, acquainted –
    Meet tranquilly, as friends –
    Salute, and pass, without a Hint –
    And there, the Matter Ends –”

    Well, maybe, but “The Matter” doesn’t end quite so neatly as F432 suggests:

    “Yes, she would live on, but it would be as a ghostly person, the sort who flutters about in white in a secluded room, venturing out only as far as the household orchard.” (SK’s Explication for F432).

    Fortunately for us ED fans, the “Matter [also] Ends” with (1789 – 432 =) 1357 more poems before ED and Death met for the last time.