Search This Blog

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.


  1. A beautiful essay. The word "doom" has Anglo-Saxon roots and literally means fate. Like you, I love the juxtaposition of Dower and Doom. Dower has a sense of preparation and Doom, a sense of finality -- like the falling of an axe.

    There is also a view in this poem -- as in many of ED's poems -- of a profundity that underlies the ordinary rhythms of life and an indifference of God to the concerns of men. In the poem, she uses an extended metaphor of ordinary business correspondence -- News, Office, Telegram -- to convey a mechanical, execution of fate. God, if he is present at all, is distant and indifferent (the frost decapitates the flower, the blonde assassin hurries on). Death is an ordinary thing in the mind of God, like an office task or housekeeping routine. It is a simple task to send a telegram; the "News" that the telegram reveals -- deaths and casualties on the Civil War battlefield, for example, has meaning only to the living who invest life with meaning.

    Your observations about Calvinism are right on point. This reader, growing up in a different time, hears more in the poem than ED likely intended. The poem for me turns on the immediacy of the present moment -- "the Act" -- and how karma, in a mechanical working of cause and effect, brings us irrevocably to the moment when the axe falls.

    1. The poem is almost frightening in its cool contemplation of the workings of Fate. Karma, by contrast, seems reassuringly rational.

  2. “Dower” has the additional connotative baggage of the marriage gift/entitlement. Way to pack stuff in, ED!

  3. “Dower” has the additional connotative baggage of the marriage gift/entitlement. Way to pack stuff in, ED!

  4. Agree with Anon above that this is a beautiful essay. Also agree that the distinction between Future and Fate is fascinating, and puts me in mind of Death and Immortality in “Because I could not stop for Death.” As intimated above, Future is what will happen and Fate is what must happen. In contrast, the relationship between Death and Immortality appears to be more complex for ED. In her letters she substitutes Immortality for Death, but in her poem they are often interpreted as separate entities. Though my personal interpretation of that poem is that Immortality is a characteristic shared by both Death and the deceased, and so is figuratively in the carriage with them.