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20 January 2019

Death is potential to that Man

Death is potential to that Man
Who dies — and to his friend —
Beyond that — unconspicuous
To Anyone but God —

Of these Two — God remembers
The longest — for the friend —
Is integral — and therefore [Is] subsequent
Itself dissolved — of God —

J548,  Fr650 (1863)

 In this short poem Dickinson takes an austere yet perhaps cosmic view of life and death, employing a cool and even legal diction.

The first stanza claims that Death is significant (ED Lexicon for "Potential") only to the dying and and his friends. His passing is hardly noticed by anyone else – except God.

The second stanza seems straightforward: God will remember the dying person longer than the grieving friend because the friend will himself die and God won't. Yet Dickinson's formulation of the mortality of the friend is quite abstract and formal. Her use of "integral" is interesting. Her alternative choice of "subsequent" – is much less so and a much more straightforward choice. Legally, and Dickinson who resided in a house of lawyers often employs legal diction, "integral" suggests something requisite, elemental, or basic. Because the friend is integral, Dickinson says, "therefore" at death he is "dissolved" of God. "Dissolve" is another word with specific legal meaning. To dissolve, according to Henry Campbell Black's 1891 Dictionary of Law, is to annul, terminate; to "release or unloose the binding force."
        Could Dickinson be drawing from the pantheistic strains of Transcendentalism?  That, as Emerson wrote in "Nature", all of nature and this world comprise a "Universal Being" – a diffusely and absolutely conscious Divine of which we are all a "part or parcel"*? Surely at death, in such a reality, there would be a dissolving, a release into the elemental particles of which the Cosmos is made. I don't think Dickinson is suggesting, despite her "dissolved – of God –" that at death we are released from God, but rather that we are released by God – perhaps into the "currents of the Universal Being."
        Or it might simply be that Dickinson is making a confident statement of belief: No matter if your death is little noted or your life forgotten when your friends are dead: God cares and remembers. Beth Marclay Doriani, in Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy (1996), considers this poem to be one of what she considers to be Dickinson's consolation poems where she "looked past the tragedy of the moment to offer encouragement" (p. 101). To me, though, the poem seems neither consoling or encouraging.

I cannot find much poetry in the poem. It reads as philosophy garbed in ambiguity. I spent an inordinate amount of time on it and don't feel particularly rewarded. Usually Dickinson rewards contemplation and study. In terms of poetic devices, the two stanzas are in basic ballad form. In lieu of rhymes, Dickinson has the second and fourth lines of both stanzas ending in "friend" and "God" respectively. Perhaps she is emphasizing the idea that should you need to pick between friends and the Divine, it is wisest to choose the Divine.

* To expand: "I am nothing! The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God" (Nature, 1836).


  1. Fascinating ... I do not know enough yet about Emily Dickinson’s poetry to speak with confidence .... however, I am struck by God as friend and transcendent into which all are dissolved upon death .... the poet’s diction and syntax leads me make such a leap of logic ... best wishes from another reader ...

  2. Thank you for this! Your observations on legal language and Transcendentalism are very helpful. An excellent essay,