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26 March 2013

If I may have it, when it's dead

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
Outvisions Paradise!
                                                                       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.


  1. Thanks for this. I hadn't read this poem before.

    I particularly like the inversion of life and death -- life being separation and death being "Thee". The stanza about about life being "this Deep all Waded" and reflection back on suffering (Calvary) as "Play" and "Old Times" (like a nostalgic reflection) is provocative. It is not a particularly comforting poem. The dead doesn't respond -- even to the signing of the deaf soul.

    The reference to Auden is very helpful. I'll look for that poem.

  2. It's such a dramatic poem with its grief spilling out almost visibly – especially ending, as it does, with the narrator stroking the 'frost.' The tone is almost exactly opposed to that in the subsequent poem, which is dry and rational.

  3. Yes, "stroke thy frost" -- so beautiful. What would happen after shutting the other's gaze down -- "without my right of frost -- death's privilege".

  4. ED is one naked no holds barred babe able to reach into every dark crevice of her heart and expose it to the light of words. To read her unabashed brilliance day after day boggles my mind.

    1. I think her intense privacy and her decision not to publish allowed this deep imagination to take her where it willed. It may be that she was in some sense writing for readers after her death, but she might not have deeply believed that this would come to pass.

  5. I get a sense her mind was like a burning orb that radiated poetry beyond the bounds of time and in that spectral expanse knew that its private creations would reach a readership no longer captive to the 19th century.

  6. I like, Susan, your comment about her writing for readers after her death. I have long felt that was the case (have several times mentioned "Split the Lark" as evidence). Not that she intended that at first, but it was a conscious stance she seems to have settled in to at some point. I'm not an ED scholar, so can;t say when, but especially the carefully preparation of her sewn manuscripts point to such an intent beyond the internal evidence of the poems themselves. She was herself nourished by long deceased writers (starting with the bible) so it's not much of a stretch.

    As always, I learned things from your blog of this poem. When I read it, I thought that stopped clock line rang a bell & whether or not WH Auden meant an allusion, it strengthens both poems to imagine them winking at each other. And the death of a loved one does indeed stop clocks.

    1. And I've since learned (while researching another poem) that Victorians would stop the household clocks at the moment of a family member's death. Both Dickinson and Auden use that in stopping all the clocks in the world to express their grief.

    2. Thanks for this further, interesting info. Blog on!

  7. Emily in the bardo -
    There were rumors that Lincoln did the same with his son Willie - returned that evening to embrace his body in the crypt.
    That would have been February of 1862.

  8. After your deeply insightful explication, Susan, and denizens’ fine comments, what more can we add? . . . . Well, maybe a little biographical context. 😊

    ED must have cared deeply for this poem; she provided alternative words or phrases in 10 different places, more than double the number in any earlier poem. Although other editors have accepted some of her alternatives, both Johnson and Franklin reject all 10. ED’s alternatives sometime give hints of her intentions, so, for the record, here are line numbers and published alternatives (left of the bracket) and rejected alternatives (to the right; Franklin, 1998, Variant metadata):

    2 so -] now -
    6 Bliss] Wealth; Right
    8 own] hold
    14 Bald] Blank -
    20 across] it seemed
    21 notice] speak to -
    26 come] seem
    27 Coveting] eagerness -
    28 stroke] touch; greet
    29 Outvisions] Outfables -

  9. “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.” (SK)

    Necroamory? Well, for ED, maybe. Franklin dates F431 “about autumn 1862”. Only a few months earlier, on May 1, 1862, Charles Wadsworth, the love of her life, departed from New York for San Francisco, a long voyage split by a Panama train portage. He looked forward to reviving a floundering church of 12 families, Calvary Presbyterian. Within a year, the congregation had swelled to overfill the sanctuary. ED had never used the word “Calvary” in a poem before their unconsummated affair; afterward, she used it in nine poems.

    Intentionally ambiguous references to California/Heaven:

    Line 20, “across”: North American continent or River Jordan, separating Earth from Heaven.

    Lines 23-24, “Deep all Waded”: Atlantic and Pacific Oceans or River Jordan

    Line 25, “At those old times – in Calvary” (time they spent together in Amherst and metaphorically at the new church in San Francisco or in Heaven)

    For ED, Wadsworth had left forever, he might as well be dead. In her mind, the two of them had pledged to meet in heaven for an eternal marriage. Because he was 16 years older, she assumed correctly he would die first. But F431 speaks of him as if he died in 1862 (he actually died April 1, 1882). Two stanzas tell it all [my brackets]:

    “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 Empty life grew]
    How Midnight felt, at first – to me –
    How all the Clocks stopped in the World –
    And Sunshine pinched me – 'Twas so cold -”

    In short, F431 can be read as metaphorical death when Wadsworth “left the land” (L235 to Higginson, 25 April 1862, Wadsworth’s departure anticipated by 5 days) and her actual death in 1886 when ED “joined him in Heaven”, four years after his death)