If I may have it, when it's dead,
I'll be contented – so –
If just as soon as Breath is out
It shall belong to me –
Until they lock it in the Grave,
'Tis Bliss I cannot weigh –
For tho' they lock Thee in the Grave,
Myself – can own the key –
Think of it Lover! I and Thee
Permitted – face to face to be –
After a Life – a Death – we'll say –
For Death was That –
And this – is Thee –
I'll tell Thee All – how Bald it grew –
How Midnight felt, at first – to me –
How all the Clocks stopped in the World –
And Sunshine pinched me – 'Twas so cold –
Then how the Grief got sleepy – some –
As if my Soul were deaf and dumb –
Just making signs – across – to Thee –
That this way – thou could'st notice me –
I'll tell you how I tried to keep
A smile, to show you, when this Deep
All Waded – We look back for Play,
At those Old Times – in Calvary,
Forgive me, if the Grave come slow –
For Coveting to look at Thee –
Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost
F431 (1862) J577
Passionate, grieving, bitter, tender, macabre – Dickinson pours it out in this poem of desperate longing. Imagining that her lover has died, she seesaws between rapture and grief in a voice at once raw, lyric, and powerful. The first line is stunning – who would not continue reading a poem that begins “If I may have it, when it’s dead”? First, we wonder what it is the poet wants, then we wonder why she wants it after it is dead.
The shocking answer is that her lover is the “it” and she really does want the man’s body until it is buried (yes, it is certainly possible that the “it” refers to a woman’s body, but I think the “it” is distinction from the live soul rather than a coy way of avoiding a “her”). Her pent-up, suppressed love for him, somehow forbidden or unallowable during his lifetime, is set free by his death. So great is her love, though, that even having his lifeless body to love would be “Bliss.” Bitter irony bleeds through. While most brides find their bliss in bed with a live groom, the poet must make do with a corpse.
In the third stanza, the poet now addresses her dead lover directly. The bitterness flashes again: “Think of it Lover!” she expostulates. “I and Thee / Permitted – face to face to be –.” “Permitted” has an overtone of scorn. Society granted no permissions, but God will, after death. To my ears she is both celebrating and castigating the permission. Oh, to be at the mercy of permissions!
She continues her rapturous address: the permission will come after life – except at this point she corrects herself: No, permission comes after death, for life without each other was “a Death.” How grievously painful are the lines, “For Death was That – / And this – is Thee,” as if all of life is concentrated in the imaginary corpse, for a short while hers.
Dickinson structures this stanza so that it is easy to read “Permitted – face to face to be” as the poet face to face with a dead body. That lends an extra bitter irony for surely such necrophilia is more deeply forbidden than any, say, extra-marital affair.
But I believe she is certainly referring to a future state of bliss once she herself is dead. We saw in earlier poems that Dickinson believed in marriage after death, most notably in F267, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ Affection,” where she proclaims that while she had a “Love that never leaped its socket,” after death she would trade the thorns for the “Diadem” and join her beloved in a triumphant union. There is also the description of the day when she exchanged crucifixes with her lover and gave “Sufficient troth” for a “new Marriage – / Justified – through Calvaries of Love!” (F325).
The next three stanzas detail the poet’s grief. We must imagine her speaking to the body, the “it,” of her lover as if in some heavenly future. She’ll tell him “All” about it: how his body grew “Bald” of its life, how that first midnight felt, and how time stopped until the sun rose, its light pinching her grief with its coldness. I think this coldness is the hard impartiality of light. Her love raptures flow in the darkness of night but get “pinched” in the brightness of day.
Then, as in “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (F372), the numbness set in. She retreats into a dark space where all her soul could do was send signs across the great void of death, so that “this way – thou could’st notice me.” But then she has a cheerier thought. She addresses the soul of her lover as if in the future after her own death, after “this Deep – / All Waded,” when the two of them will “look back for Play” at the misery, the “Calvary” of their earthly lives. She’ll tell him how she kept a smile to show him.
The final stanza takes us back to the imaginary corpse. In beautiful parallelism, she apologizes for two things: for delaying his burial because she wants to look at him, and for denying paradise to him for a while longer so that she can touch him. Coming after the outpouring of grief, bitterness, tenderness and hope, the last two lines, “Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost / Outvisions Paradise!” is hair-raisingly powerful and sad. It is Dickinson with her knife. The poet envisions her grief and how she might stroke the cold body of her beloved – and admittedly prefers this vision to Paradise.
Is there another dramatic monologue to a lover that matches this in pathos and an almost Gothic twist of imagination? I don’t think so, but I do believe the great 20th
Century poet, W.H. Auden, was very much aware of this poem and its line, “How all the Clocks stopped in the World,” when he began his widely quoted eulogy for his dead lover with “Stop all the clocks.”
Final note: Although our modern sensibilities might be a little repelled by the wish to be ensconced with a loved one’s dead body, Dickinson wasn’t completely off the charts in her own time. The dead were often posed for pictures as if they were alive. Bodies were kissed and held. Judith Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson) reminds readers that even the great transcendental philosopher Emerson reportedly dug up his dead wife to embrace her.