Search This Blog

15 August 2013

The Whole of it came not at once —

The Whole of it came not at once —
'Twas Murder by degrees —
A Thrust — and then for Life a chance —
The Bliss to cauterize —

The Cat reprieves the Mouse

She eases from her teeth
Just long enough for Hope to tease —
Then mashes it to death —

'Tis Life's award — to die —

Contenteder if once —
Than dying half — then rallying
For consciouser Eclipse —
                                                                      F485 (1862)  J762

This poem just doesn't work for me. The first stanza starts well enough with its metaphorical language about love and pain and the the bliss that cauterizes the "Thrust" of pain. But then we get the tired cliché (perhaps it wasn't tired in 1862, though) about the cat playing with the mouse. The final stanza says it's better to die once than twice. 

Mouse about to get mashed

The take-away from this poem? Why get your hopes up only to have them dashed?

One odd thing about his poem is the line about the cat mashing the mouse to death. It just makes a weird visual in  my head. 

**Note: A commenter does a much better job than I did with this poem. (It was late, I was grumpy...)


  1. I fully agree that the poem would be better without the second stanza. Without this stanza, it is a splendid poem.

    One interesting aspect of the poem is that it inverts conventional attitudes toward death. After a near death experience in the first stanza, life recovers and returns to normal by "cauteriz[ing}" the "Bliss" -- an amazing phrase. And then, in the last stanza, death is "Life's award".

    By the way, I am not convinced that in the last stanza ED prefers being "contenteder" to "consciouser". At best, she seems neutral on the choice and simply observes the distinction -- that one who dies more than once may have lived through pain but obtains consciousness and wisdom. In several poems ("My life closed twice . . " is one example), ED makes clear that her life falls in the second category -- of experiencing grief and death and being "consciouser" for it.

    The use of "contendeder" and "consciouser" is an interesting formulation of the comparative that ED uses elsewhere ("antiquest" in "Further in summer than the birds . . ."). I'm not convinced it really works here -- but it is fun.

  2. Good points - thank you. Now that I actually *think* about the poem I particularly like "Eclipse" paired with "consciouser." For the uninitiate, there is death; with that wisdom born of pain, perhaps, the consciousness has a different vantage.

    However, on re-reading more carefully, I am confused by the first stanza: the "Murder by degrees" seems to be contradicted by the "Thrust." I suppose that bad things were going on for quite a while, culminating in some more overt act of pain giving, but still ...

  3. Eclipse is a great word. It makes a nice slant rhyme with "once". It also creates a sense both of a gradual death by "degrees" and an image of death superimposing itself over and obscuring life -- so there is a sense of life going on underneath. I expect it reads too much into the word in the context of this poem, but if death is an "eclipse" life will emerge again as the penumbra of death passes by.

  4. Aha, what fun to see what I guess is my favorite Emily poem. I had a blog running several years that I named Consciouser Eclipse in its honor. I'll be seventy in a few more weeks, and continue to believe that my own eventual demise will be, well, at least interestinger if not consciouser than what it would have been had I not encountered this amazing poet. She squeaks for us mice pretty well.

  5. I love ED's poems that continually knock me on my butt with their brilliant images and music, but I'm afraid the last stanza with its "Contenteder" and "consciouser" feels (and sounds) clumsy. Forgive me, Em.

  6. I’m not so sure she is choosing to be “contenteder” though, since she is so in thrall to the process and actual moment of death (too many poems to cite here, but the fly comes to mind) - she would have wanted to experience the “award” in a “consciouser” way, don’t you think?

    1. I do agree -- and your comment on her death-process poems offers a lot of insight here. I think Anonymous'comments flesh this out nicely, too, particularly in 'Eclipse' gloss.

      It's a big question, really: would you go 'contenteder' or 'consciouser'? Poet Emily seems all in for consciouser.