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14 April 2014

He gave away his Life —

He gave away his Life —
To Us — Gigantic Sum —
A trifle — in his own esteem —
But magnified — by Fame —

Until it burst the Hearts
That fancied they could hold —
When swift it slipped its limit —
And on the Heavens — unrolled —

'Tis Ours — to wince — and weep —
And wonder — and decay
By Blossoms gradual process —
He chose — Maturity —

And quickening — as we sowed —
Just obviated Bud —
And when We turned to note the Growth —
Broke — perfect — from the Pod —
                                                     F530 (1863)  J567

The poem laments the death of a young and beloved man. Scholars believe this would be Frazer Stearns, the son of Amherst College's president and particular friend of Dickinson's older brother, Austin. Emily Dickinson was fond of him as well. Frazer was killed in battle and Dickinson writes movingly of his death and well-attended funeral in a letter to her young cousins ( L255). 
        The poem begins with a monetary analogy similar to that in "It feels a shame to be Alive" ( F524) where she wonders if we survivors are worth the "Sublimely paid" cost of soldier lives that are piled "like Dollars". Here, the soldier, valuing his life as but "A trifle", gave it away. But this trifle, to his survivors a "Gigantic Sum", becomes so "magnified" in the "Fame" of his brave death that it "burst the Hearts" of those who cared for him. 
        In the lovely and elegiac second stanza Dickinson pivots to the bird-like freedom of the soul that has "slipped its limit" and journeys to "the Heavens. "Unrolled" is reminiscent of her poem a year earlier, "A Bird came down the Walk" ( (F359), where the bird "unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer Home". The rhyme pairing of "hold" and "unrolled" is a gentle one. The soul doesn't struggle from the grip of life. It isn't frantic or frightened. Instead, it slips, swiftly, and unrolls. The stanza is full of "s" sounds that further reinforce the soul's soundless liberty. 
        (The stanza reminds me of John Gillespie Magee's famous poem  "High Flight" where the pilot has "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to reach "The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out my hand and touched the face of God". )
        In the final two stanzas Dickinson contrasts the arc of normal lives to that of the soldier. She winds us up a bit with the repeated "w"s – wince, weep, and wonder – and then in something of a knockout punch delivers "decay" to end the series. That is life. We have painful moments when we wince, the bitter disappointments when we weep, and the glorious times – perhaps just strolling in the garden – when we wonder. Yet all the while we decay. The image is disturbing with its suggestion of moldering rot, but then she softens it by reminding us that this is "Blossoms gradual process". Yes, like a flower we bud and bloom before we decay.
        The introduction of a botanical image is carried through to the end of the poem. Unlike the arc of a typical human life, the soldier "chose – Maturity". Not for him the budding and blossoming lover or poet, firebrand or farmer. He chose the soldier path during the bloodiest war the United States has ever experienced. He "obviated Bud", bypassing it completely. While his peers were simply sowing (I read this as a wry and youthful "sowing their wild oats" reference in addition to the continuation of the botanical analogy), he was "quickening". That's an interesting word containing as it does both a sense of growing life and growing into maturity. A child quickens in the womb; a boy quickens into the maturity of manhood and issues of life and death and courage.
Milkweed pod; photo, Harry Alverson
 There is a lovely sense of completion and birth in the initial reference to "sowing" seed followed by the soldier who "Broke – perfect – from the Pod", a seed himself loosed from the pod of his body. It is also a Christ metaphor, for Christ was perfected in in his early death, also choosing "Maturity". The alliterating "perfect" and "Pod" work much better than the earlier instances. The slant rhyme of "Pod" with "Bud" evokes the young man's sudden passing from youth to eternity without having budded. His soul, a seed, will bloom, one hopes, in some better afterlife.


  1. She is such a master.

    The line "Just obviated Bud --" is so amazing. The words are interesting. This is probably the only time in the history of the English language when "bud" has ever been the object of the verb "obviate".

    And the sounds create so many echos. "Just" rhymes with "Bud". And the internal rhyme of "obviate" and "Pod" is closer than the end rhyme of "Bud" and "pod".

    Then further in the last stanza -- the long "o" sounds of "note the Growth Broke" are beautiful. The word "Broke" breaks the string of iambs in the previous line -- so the rhythm matches the sense.

    And in terms of sense -- the second and fourth stanzas both have an image of life breaking out. In the second stanza, our hearts are the constraint -- the limit on the beloved. In the last stanza, this becomes a pod that shelters a seed.

    What a poem!

  2. The last stanza of the poem is also meant to echo the Biblical promise of resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15:35.

    From the King James translation: "Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die."

  3. Insightful comments, thank you. I think this is one of Dickinson's most polished poems with each word combining sound and sense and each phrase layering imagery and metaphor.

    I appreciate the Corinthians reference -- what an interesting verse!

  4. ED has done it again, composed an elegiac poem that could be read at a public memorial service immediately after she composed a private poem of failure to fill a dying tiger’s request for water. As with the pair of poems preceding these two, she stitched them back to back, poems 5 and 6 in Fascicle 28.

    Talk about turmoil, inner pain versus outer praise, inner inadequacy versus outer paragon of strength, a recipe for stress.