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01 July 2018

For Death – or rather

For Death – or rather
For the Things 'twould buy –
This – put away
Life's Opportunity –

The Things that Death will buy
Are Room –
Escape from Circumstances –
And a Name –

With Gifts of Life
How Death's Gifts may compare –
We know not –
For the Rates – lie Here –

Fr644  (1863)  J382

I picture the poet standing by the grave of a suicide. 'This' – the corpse –, she muses, 'put away / Life's Opportunity' for what Death buys. The poem is chillingly cool as Dickinson portrays the decision to keep or stop living as a transactional one. Rather than spend your Life, you can sell it to Death.

        To someone with a reasonably satisfactory life, Death's gifts seem scant: a room the size of a coffin or at best a crypt; escape from the troubles of life (which Dickinson mitigates in the first stanza by pairing Life with 'Opportunity' ); and your name carved in stone.
        In the third stanza Dickinson acknowledges that she cannot judge if trading Life's gifts for those of Death is a good deal. Any potential the deceased's life might have held lie dead in the ground. They can no longer be measured in any rate of exchange against the sureties of Death: Room, Escape, and Name.
A 1910 suicide's grave in unconsecrated ground;
the regular cemetaary is in background
        Nowhere does the poet mention the possibility of an afterlife – either the promise of heaven or, particularly for suicides, the threat of hell. Nor is there reference to any loved ones who might be missed or who might be suffering. No, Dickinson has stripped it down to the most fundamental level. Life has Opportunities – promising, certainly, but uncertain; and the always doubtful if not ominous 'Circumstances' – a word too often preceded by 'reduced', 'unfortunate', or 'tragic'. Death might seem bare and devoid of interest, but it is, in this portrayal, restful and secure.
        In this regard, I'm reminded of Dickinson's poem "How many times these low feet staggered" (F238) where the poet contemplates the body of a woman who is portrayed as an exhausted housewife. At the end, Dickinson details the chores now left undone as the "Indolent Housewife – in Daisies – lain!" Death here is a relief from Circumstances as well as what were probably very limited Opportunities.

That Dickinson, in the end, does not assert Life over Death is startling and considering her place and time, even shocking. Suicide historically has been considered by Christians to be a great sin – and in most cultures a great evil. Suicides' bodies were mutilated and never allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Fortunately, however, although suicide was illegal in Massachussetts until the late 1800s, by Dickinson's time opinion had shifted to consider suicide as a result of mental illness.

The poem may be read as about death in general rather than suicide specifically. But I think the first stanza and the proposition itself support a reading of the poem as about choosing between life and death, a choice exemplified by contemplation of a suicide.