Search This Blog

07 June 2015

I am alive — I guess —

I am alive — I guess —
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory —
And at my finger's end —

The Carmine — tingles warm —
And if I hold a Glass
Across my Mouth — it blurs it —
Physician's — proof of Breath —

I am alive — because
I am not in a Room —
The Parlor — commonly — it is —
So Visitors may come —

And lean — and view it sidewise —
And add "How cold — it grew" —
And "Was it conscious — when it stepped
In Immortality?"

I am alive — because
I do not own a House —
Entitled to myself — precise —
And fitting no one else —

And marked my Girlhood's name —
So Visitors may know
Which Door is mine — and not mistake —
And try another Key —

How good — to be alive!
How infinite — to be
Alive — two-fold — The Birth I had —
And this — besides, in — Thee!
                           F605 (1863)  J470

This ambiguous and interesting poem begins as did the robin in the previous poem – in a "doubtful Tone".  It ends in triumphant affirmation. What transpires between to bridge from one mood to the other is difficult to determine.
        "I am alive", the poet states flatly, adding a dampening "I guess".  Three pieces of evidence follow: her hand is full of morning glory flowers, her fingertips are rosy and warm, and her breath is evident as she breathes across a glass. Morning glories open in the morning and die by evening; consequently, they often are used as symbols of mortality. Victorians also used them to signify love and affection. In this poem Dickinson might be calling on both meanings.
Morning Glory – among the most
feminine of flowers

        The poem then takes on a more emphatic tone, as if the narrator has been reassured by her own evidence. The "I am alive – because" line that introduces the next two sections looks at evidence beyond her own body.  She sees that she is not in a coffin laid out for visitors to look at. Neither is she in a crypt or grave – marked with her "Girlhood's name".
        Finally convinced, the poet exclaims, "How good – to be alive!" as if at least momentarily she really had thought she died. The poet then expands on birth and death: she is not only alive, but alive "two-fold" having been born as a baby and then reborn in some other entity, the "Thee" of the last line. 
        Rebirth in Christian redemption is foundational to Christian evangelicals and was certainly familiar to those living during the revivals sweeping Amherst and other New England communities in the 1850s. Is this the meaning of the poem? 

In "It was not Death, for I stood up" [F355], Dickinson goes through another list of proof through negatives. In a state of despair, she feels as she were frozen or dead, in a state "most, like Chaos – stopless – cool – / Without a Chance…". If this poem is a description of dying to the world, then perhaps another poem, "I'm ceded – I've stopped being Theirs" [F353] provides some insight into how Dickinson perceives being reborn. 
In that poem Dickinson rejects her infant baptism and the faith into which she was born as all "finished". Her second birth is "consciously, of Grace – / Unto supremest name". In this rebirth she exerts her "Will to choose, / Or to reject". What she ends up choosing is "just a Crown".

Dickinson embeds the same same ambiguity in that poem as in the current one. Has she experienced or chosen a rebirth into Christianity? Poetry? Truth? Circumference? A lover?
        Although a religious rebirth seems the simplest reading, I am drawn to the awakening of romantic and physical love. The poem begins with great physicality, with her fingers as branches, their tips tingly and glowing. She holds a mass of flowers newly opened for their day of sun. She is disoriented as if she had been stunned: she looks around to see if she has died and been placed in a casket or grave. After emerging from this swoon, fully alive and flowered, she feels reborn. While this might represent her church-of-nature union with Jesus, it might mean an earthly lover as well. I have no doubt Dickinson wrote with this ambiguity firmly in her own heart. It is a version of the "infinite" that she has become.


  1. So insightful the part where you say, "She looks around to see if she has died." As if she had found herself out of time––

  2. Beautiful poem; insightful analysis.

    I don't think it necessary to pin down the two-fold birth to a specific meaning. ED in different poems joins images of morning, marriage, sexual maturity, death and spiritual revelation. In "A wife -- at Daybreak I shall be --", ED powerfully evokes a spiritual and sexual union with Christ in a meditation on death. In this poem too, ED refers to her "Girlhood's name", with images of morning ("Morning Glory"), death and rebirth.

    It is a very powerful poem beginning with beautiful, hesitant, prose like rhythms. Rhymes in the first stanzas of the poem (guess, Glass, Breath, because, is, sidewise, conscious, because, house, precise, else) tie the poem together. The poem ends with exact rhymes ("Key", "be", "thee") -- almost like the end of a scene from Shakespeare where exact rhymes signal the transition to a new scene.

  3. I am confident that the rebirth suggested here is not religious. ED's opinions on that subject were (surprisingly) unambiguous.

  4. I read the “morning glories” that branch on her hands as veins, referring to their blue color... picks up the carmine/blood reference of the finger tips later - FWIW

    1. Interesting -- I think it works both ways very well. Thanks!

  5. "fully alive and flowered"

    "I have no doubt Dickinson wrote with this ambiguity firmly in her own heart. It is a version of the "infinite" that she has become." Well said.

    The infinite that she has become. There is something interesting going on in those last two stanzas. The name on the gravestone becomes synonymous with "cold" encapsulation. You need the right "key" to find it. But being alive is beyond the name, beyond the key, infinite.

    How good — to be alive!
    How infinite — to be

    (perfect line break)

    Alive — two-fold — The Birth I had —
    And this — besides, in — Thee!

    I think part of the two-fold birth here can also be seen in the intended reader. Through the poem (and any communication of the "heart's extent") you are born again in other, and infinitely expanding. The thee at the end the poem is every reader, me, we.

    1. The turn in this poem from feeling dead in life to the
      surprise ending of feeling good and infinitely alive is such a sharp turn. It seems to rest, perhaps, on the "Key" in this poem. The key is in the girlhood name of the self, and the "visitor" being able to find the "room". At first I thought that girlhood "name" was limiting, limiting the infinite, "precise and fitting no one else", but now I see it as a key for the visitor, and it is in the visiting that the "rebirth" can take place. Perhaps. On one hand names are limiting, on the other, they clue us into the individual. I've noticed that ED's poems with the word Key in them give us a clue to a key to unlock the poem. Something definitely unlocks the narrator in this poem, and it appears to be a rebirth into spirit, or other, or God, or reader.

      Also, it bears repeating, the exhilaration in these lines,

      How good -- to be alive!
      How infinite -- to be

      Trot these lines out for all those that think of ED as a death-obsessed depressive.

  6. I love thinking of Me in the Thee as I read her poems. Thanks for that --

    1. Yes, ye. I would guess that ED meant this poems for a specific "thee" but because she left the specifics private, and because she left the poems for posterity, the lover becomes, through transference, the reader. It's romantic this transference, wherein the love story continues in the reader. It's an odd thing about any love poetry, that any "you" becomes, by extension, the reader. And yet the "I" seems to be, despite her protest, always Emily. It's the unique quality that we love back.