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22 May 2018

The Future never spoke –

The Future never spoke –
Nor will he like the Dumb 
Reveal by sign – a Syllable
Of His Profound To Come –

But when the News be ripe 
Presents it in the Act –
Forestalling Preparation –
Escape – or Substitute –

Indifferent to him –
The Dower – as the Doom –
His Office but to execute
Fate's Telegram – to Him –
                 Fr638 (1863)  J672

This poem on the future begins with the straightforward premise that the future is unknowable. It closes, however, with a personified Fate who dictates all that is to come.
        While Fate is not a part of mainstream Christian theology today, Dickinson grew up in a Calvinist home, one accepting Calvinism's tenents that salvation and damnation are predestined. Further, Calvin taught that God pre-ordained everything: "All events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God" (citation on Wikipedia, "Predestination in Calvinism").

Once again Dickinson employs the sort of legal diction that she would have heard from her lawyer father and his friends. The Future, like some loyal factotum, executes his master Fate's instructions upon receipt. The execution is so swift that Future's 'News' is revealed only 'in the Act' itself, which necessarily forestalls 'Preparation – / Escape – or Substitute'. Dickinson's formulation sounds like a legal order for an apprehension of some sort.
The Moirai (the Fates) - Alfred Agache (1843–1915)

The first stanza portrays the essential opaqueness of the future. Despite mindbending relativistic theories of spacetime, in our lived experience, there are no clues, neither spoken nor written, to reveal what will befall. Dickinson refers to this as the Future's "Profound To Come" – a marvelous phrase. The future is certainly profound – it influences us as we prepare for it, as we avert our eyes from it, as we welcome or dread it. Its unfolding lies at the heart of many of humanity's greatest literary and artistic creations. Death and Justice, triumph and defeat are all in the Profound To Come.

The last stanza is slightly chilling. The Future doesn't care about what happens. He is indifferent to our  winnings and our losings. I love the alliteration of Dower and Doom – they drop from Dickinson as a matched pair, intrinsically linked. But of course the Future doesn't care. He has but one responsibility – to carry out the dictates of Fate. Dickinson leaves the contemplation of who or what Fate is to her readers' imaginations – or perhaps to the assumptions of her day.
        It's a fine distinction, that between Future and Fate: the carriage overturns after losing a wheel and a woman dies. That accident was birthed by the Future into the here and now. But it was Fate who decreed the woman's demise. For Calvinists it is all=powerful God who by definition if not revelation preordains the direction of the cosmos, individual salvation or damnation, and whether the carriage falls.