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 |
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.