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23 December 2018

I've seen a Dying Eye

I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room –
In search of Something – as it seemed –
Then Cloudier become –
And then – obscure with Fog –
And then – be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
'Twere blessed to have seen –
                                                  Fr 647 (1863)  J547

The living have no way to really know what happens after death. There are the usual reports from the near dead or briefly dead: the tunnel with a light at the end, for example; or the evanescing (or perhaps effervescing) into the vast Oneness of the Cosmos. But we tend to take these tales with a grain of salt. The brain might be doing strange things as it closes down. We may be conditioned to expect certain outcomes and, thus, imagine we've seen them.
        In this poem, the speaker waits by a death bed or death beds hoping the dying person will provide some indication of what might be glimpsed as he or she passes through the veil separating life from death. But no such indication is forthcoming.
        It's a poem of frustration rather than grief. The speaker details the Eye's movements in the last moments, but it is clear it is not clinical curiosity about what an eye does before becoming "soldered down" with death, but rather curiosity about what the eye sees as the body dies. There is, however, no indication that dying Eyes see anything of note. They become cloudy, then obscured, and then, finally, closed in the finality of death. The poem ends with the speaker frustrated that nothing has been revealed, but Dickinson seems to imply that the dying are not "blessed to have seen" anything.
Fading Away, Henry Robinson: Victorian deathbed watch

In another poem's death scene frustration, a dying person "heard a Fly buzz" when she died rather than seeing "the King," undoubtedly Jesus or some other representation of God or the divine, that those gathered around her were clearly expecting. Instead she sees only a fly as her "Windows failed." The incongruous and existential disparity between savior and fly in this poem (Fr591is profound.

Dickinson refrains from the hushed respect accorded death bed watches. While the buzzing blue fly is an almost sarcastic dismissal of hopes for a divine encounter,  Sharon Leiter  says that the Dying Eye's searching in the current poem "suggests nothing so much as a demented rodent of some sort racing desperately in circles' (Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson, 2007, p. 133). I don't think that Dickinson is dismissing the mysteries of life and death but rather depicting the vagaries, indignities, and ultimately the singularly alone-ness of the passage.

Dickinson compresses two stanzas in this poem, using traditional hymn or ballad style. She further knits the poem together with word sounds. The 'ou's of  "round and round" are echoed in "Cloudier" and 'Without". The rodent quickness is impelled by the "r"s of "Run round and round a Room" followed by the sibilance of "In search of Something – as it seemed – ." "Dying Eye" not only has a core rhyme but the visual element of the "y," and most of the end words can be sorted into two slant rhyme groups: Room, seemed, become; and seemed, be, and seen (plus down with seen).
        But the heart of the poem lies in the center as the poet builds to the final anticlimax. She begins with the Dying Eye searching, followed by three listings: Then it becomes cloudy; and then obscured; and then it is soldered down. Hope diminishes with each step into the final ironic subjunctive.


  1. Your point that Dickinson is "depicting the vagaries, indignities, and ultimately the singularly alone-ness of the passage" of death is spot-on. That articulates very well a feeling I had about the reading but hadn't conceptualized so clearly. When I read the poem before, I focused almost exclusively on the speaker's perception (and fears) of death, but her response is of course triggered by the frantic desperation of the dying person. It's really a terrifying poem, more so with each reading.

    I'm intrigued by Dickinson's use of "solder." Dickinson only uses the word in four poems, but two of them come back-to-back in fascicle 31, this one and the poem you just examined: "To fill a gap." Can that be a coincidence? "Solder" or also "soder" (according to the 1844 Webster's) comes from the Latin meaning something like "to make firm," and it is also where we get the word "solid." Dickinson seems to be playing in both poems with the "solid" corporeal conditions of earthly existence and the "foggy" or "cloudy" conditions of death (this applies whether death is conceived as a spiritual, bodiless afterlife or as a complete annihilation of the self). So you can't "solder" the "abyss" of death because that would be applying a material solution to an immaterial problem.

    In "I've seen a dying eye," the "dying Eye" is frantically searching for some higher truth, but it just gets a vague haze: the "something" it "seems" to search for becomes only "cloudier" and then "obscured with Fog." Then, at the very moment of death, it becomes "soldered down," a mere physical object negated of mind or soul. In other words, death solidifies us into material, inanimate things. There's also a sense in which death holds us down and imprisons us.

    In this light, I can't help but read the poem as an expression of profound doubt about the afterlife and religious comfort. The tone, which is so full of frenetic anxiety, speaks to me that way. It's true that Dickinson (as usual) doesn't shut the door completely. Just because the speaker isn't "blessed" with the knowledge of the dying person doesn't mean such knowledge doesn't exist. It's possible to say something similar about "I heard I fly buzz" (your connection between the poems is great, by the way). Just because this world can't represent the profundity of the next world doesn't mean that profundity doesn't exist (most Christian doctrine says as much). Still, to me, the performance of the speaker enacts a doubt the speaker doesn't state outright. Your point about the "final ironic subjunctive" in the last line expresses this perfectly, I think.

    (By the way, I don't believe there are any dashes at the end of lines 6 and 7.)

  2. A beautiful essay. I also love the word "solder" -- the precision and permanence of the word.

  3. Another ED poem that this one recalls is "A Dying Tiger -- moaned for drink --".

    In Tiger, as in this poem, the dying eye is the image. In this poem, the "Something" that is searched for is mysterious. For the Tiger, it is clear that searching is for "A Vision on the Retina Of Water -- and of me --". But both poems have the same focus on death reflected in the fading sense perception of the eye ("Then Cloudier become -- And then -- obscure with Fog -- And the -- be soldered down"; "his Mighty Balls -- in death were thick --"). Both poems also have a tension between the distance of the poet as a neutral observer and the experience of a death where there is no "blessing" and no "blame".

    1. It does seem as if Dickinson is focusing on what is physically seen by the dying at the moment of death in these poems. There is always a hope and then the extinguishing of hope. In Tiger -- and thanks for directing me there -- I read it as the Tiger has already died, but what he has seen is imprinted on its retina: water {which he never received and so was a 'vision') and 'me' -- the bearer of water who arrived too late. Re-reading it now, it seems horrifying.