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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.


  1. Thanks for such a clear and cogent explication! It's a bit bold to suggest Dickinson is looking so seriously at the "transaction" (great word to describe it, by the way) of suicide, but you make a convincing case. Besides, Dickinson was not one to back down from speaking the truth as she saw it. I love your connection to F238, too, which casts the poem in a whole new light.

    I hear some meaningful wordplay in two places. In the second stanza, the last two lines suggest not only that death will give her a name, as on a tombstone, but also that it will allow her to "escape" a name along with circumstances. (I always love these possibilities with Dickinson's dashes: the lines work both ways at once.) The idea of escaping a name makes even more sense if she is a married woman who has taken her husband's name, but of course it applies to anyone who dies.

    Also, the last line of the poem sounds like a pun on "lie," which would support your already strong argument. It would also help explain why the speaker doesn't mention hell; the afterlife is just a lie that people "here" in this world tell each other instead acknowledging real "exchange rate" of death.

    (Weird sidenote: according to the Lexicon and the Archive, this is the one and only time Dickinson uses the word "rate" in her poems. Don't know what to do with that exactly except the one time she uses it, she makes the most of it.)

    Thanks for your wonderful blog!

    1. I love both your wordplay comments. Neither had occurred to me but now they seem obvious and resonant. I think they are shadow meanings, lightly dangled.

  2. Thank you for this. And thank Jackson -- I like her view of escape being from circumstances and a name.

    I love the methodical categorizing in the second stanza. There is a sense of humor here in the precision of counting "things" that Death will buy. And there is a play between openness and limitation --- Life offers opportunity, what my dictionary defines as "a favorable juncture of circumstances". Life is separation, the possibility of improvement and progress, measured in the currency of the living (friendships, wealth, success). But opportunity is limitation, it is in the realm of what can be measured.

    Death offers room. In other poems, ED talks about the narrow room of the grave, a swelling in the ground. But here, room (I think) is open ended. Death is not limited by the physical, it is the letting go of limits -- a transcending of separation -- to something beyond measure.

    Likewise, escape from circumstances and name is a transition from the particular to something beyond limits.

    There is no comparison between the gifts of Life and the gifts of Death because the very idea of comparison -- the idea of rates and exchange -- are on Life's side of the grave.

    1. I really like your reading of 'room': it completely alters my reading to think about how death offers limitless space - room - in contrast to the circumscribed lives too many people are channeled into -- particularly women in Dickinson's Victorian and Calvinist milieu.

  3. I think if Dickinson had meant an escape from name together with the circumstances, she would have used the definite article with the word "name", because you escape your own name, and nobody else's. Therefore, I think what she meant was that you acquire a name that can be read on your tombstone by everyone. Or am I mistaken?

    1. I think I agree: You get the solidness and longevity of your own name carved into the tombstone. It implies some sort of presence both of life and, now, in death.

  4. I wonder if there is significance in the space between “gifts” as discussed in stanza 3 and the objects of purchase, which, paid for, would not be gifts. Are they 2 distinct categories? Or is she using them interchangeably? It seems that she is sure of what exactly can be purchased, but foggy about the gifts, since the rates - the valuation can only be determined by the one who “lie[s] here.”
    Thank you, Susan, as always.

    1. Okay, now it's confusing. I would tend towards the 'interchangeable' end of the meaning spectrum here. You're buying a little cramped room but perhaps the space as Jackson (above) parses it, is really a gift. There's no knowing as long as we live. It might also be that the Gifts of Life is meant rather ironically: gift of constraint, penury, etc.

  5. Here's an interpretation (one of 7) of the word "room" in the Emily Dickinson Lexicon:

    Unoccupied opportunities.
    J382/Fr644 The Things that Death will buy / Are Room – / Escape … And a Name
    I read, "Put away life's opportunity for the things that Death will buy."

  6. An interpretation and a legal no-no:

    For Death, or rather
    for the Things Death would buy,
    Dying would put away
    any Opportunities Life might offer -

    Death would buy
    a casket
    and freedom from Life’s pains, and, most importantly,
    Heaven’s new Name for me: Mrs. Charles Wadsworth.

    How Gifts of Life
    and Gifts of Death may compare,
    we know not –
    for that Ratio depends on what happens during Life’s remainder.

    Any academic court would call this poem blatant plagiarism, ED of Shakespeare.

    Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 56-69):

    To be, or not to be: that is the question:
    Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
    To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause: there's the respect
    That makes calamity of so long life.