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02 August 2019

No Crowd that has occurred

No Crowd that has occurred
Exhibit — I suppose
That General Attendance
That Resurrection — does —

Circumference be full —
The long restricted Grave                                                       [long] subjected
Assert her Vital Privilege —                                                   [Assert] His Primogeniture
The Dust — connect — and live —

On Atoms — features place —
All Multitudes that were
Efface in the Comparison —
As Suns — dissolve a star —                                                 [Suns -] annul

Solemnity — prevail —
Its Individual Doom
Possess each separate Consciousness —
August — Absorbed — Numb —                                        [August-]  Resistless– dumb

What Duplicate — exist —                                                    [What] scenery
What Parallel can be —
Of the Significance of This —                                                [the] stupendousness
To Universe — and Me?
                                                            J515, Fr 653 (1863)

This poem describes a slice of Judgment Day (from the Bible's Rev 20:1-15) . It begins in a rather droll way, the tone conversational as if the speaker were making an offhand remark on the topic of large gatherings. She ultimately concludes, unremarkably, that Judgment Day will be the largest and most significant gathering ever in the whole Universe --  and also – but with a question mark –  the most significant event to herself.

It is that question mark paired with the droll opening tone that may expose the poem to the If of faith and doubt.

The second stanza flatly depicts what Revelations describes. The Grave, long portrayed (by many, including Dickinson herself) as a passive receptacle for the deceased to wait, "safe in their alabaster chambers" (Fr124), until the final Resurrection, here asserts "her Vital Privilege": to reassemble the scattered 'dust' and atoms of the dead into their recognizable former bodies.
            Although there is no wailing or gnashing of teeth, neither is it a happy crowd. We see no joyful reunions, no reconstituted flesh revelling in the touch of a breeze, or bird song (should there be enough atoms left for birds). Instead, Dickinson paints a picture of the numb solemnity of a solid mass of humanity just before the moment of judgment.
            She ends the poem rhetorically asking if there could every be anything like such an event, anything comparable to its significance both to the Universe and to herself. While the questions are simple they just don't reflect, for me, the tone of someone truly contemplating their doom. Judgment Day feels far-fetched, the scene too dispassionate. It is like Eliot's Prufrock squeezing "the universe into a ball" and rolling it "towards some overwhelming question" only to have the listener shrug.
            This may be exactly the effect Dickinson intended. It may well have been a reaction against a religion she was never quite comfortable with

Puritan/Calvinist Christianity emphasized the afterlife: the threat of hell and a hope of heaven. The threat was never made more clear than in Jonathan Edwards' 1741 sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Throughout the (very long) sermon, Edwards paints a fearsome picture of damnation – and even of God: "The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire."
William Blake's "Judgment Day", 1808
Echoes of this famous and fiery sermon reverberated in Dickinson's life whether at home, away at school, or in her local church. She experienced a wave of revival that made similar calls for parishioners to stand and make a clear declaration of conversion. Although her family and most of her friends did so, Emily Dickinson did not.

Her letters contain a few mentions of fiery sermons. One was disturbing:
The minister today … preached about death and judgment, and what would become of those, meaning Austin and me, who behaved improperly – and somehow the sermon scared me, and father and Vinnie looked very solemn as if the whole was true, and I would not for worlds have them know that it troubled me … . He preached such an awful sermon though, that I didn't much think I should ever see you again until the Judgment Day, and then you would not speak to me, according to his story. The subject of perdition seemed to please him, somehow. (Letter 175 to Dr. and Mrs. J.G. Holland, Nov. 1854; Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, pg. 124) 

Another sermon, no doubt intended to scare the devil out of parishioners, was laughed at by the whole family, including Dickinson's conservative and dignified father:
The rest have gone to meeting, to hear Rev Martin Leland. I listened to him this forenoon in a state of mind very near frenzy, and feared the effect too much to go out this afternoon. The morning exercises were perfectly ridiculous,  and we spent the intermission in mimicking the Preacher, and reciting extracts from his most memorable sermon. I never heard father so funny.  … He said he ran out of meeting for fear somebody would ask him what he tho't of the preaching. He says if anyone asks him, he shall put his hand to his mouth, and his mouth in the dust, and cry, Unclean – Unclean!! ( Letter 125 to Austin Dickinson, June 1854; Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, pg. 104-5).

In this poem, Dickinson does not describe salvation, damnation, God's mood, nor how humanity and the Universe came to this pass. Instead there's a sort of latent eeriness, certainly a lack of affect, in her depiction of corpse dust – and there would be countless tons of it –reconfiguring into a mass of long-ago bodies. The underlying question is, I think, Why? Why the big production? Why at all?

            I realize this poem can also be read as a stately and somber depiction of Judgment Day. Christanne Miller discusses how the uninflected verbs (verbs without tense, here used ungrammatically) such as "Exhibit," "be full," and "Solemnity – prevail," "undercuts any clear sense of time or of number. … Those crowds do still exist, and resurrection is … ongoing, universal, like the poem's verbs" (Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Gramnmar, p.68-9).
            Yet to me, even the meter works against the solemnity. There is an over-regularity, an over-stressing of iambic trimeter, that affects a reader's mood. The first stanza in this poem, with its strong meter, it's rhyme of "suppose" and "does", it's dry "Exhibit" and "General Attendance" all establish a wry mood. "Resurrection" appears anticlimactically in the last line of the stanza.

So, Reader, what do you think? A subtle undercutting of Judgment Day? Or a carefully-crafted serious treatment of it?


  1. I think you’re asking all of the right questions here, especially about the poem’s tone. It’s difficult to reimagine the religious context for poems like this 150 years later. It’s possible, for instance, to read a stately, sober cadence to these lines (such as “The Dust—connect—and live—,” which thrills me a bit). But I still think you’re right to hear a lack of affect here, especially in that first stanza. There seems to be something irreverent about calling the meek members of the resurrection “that General Attendance,” like a formal, obligatory gathering. They should be celebrating, right? And so should the speaker, right? But it feels deliberately flat. The speaker is not in that kind of mood at all.

    There’s an irony to the last lines that I find intriguing. On the one hand, she is saying that this event is utterly unique, without “parallel.” Nothing more significant can happen to the universe or to the speaker. On the other hand, the significance of this event depends on making the speaker herself insignificant. She is only one of countless individuals reassembling her atoms at the end of days.

    Dickinson is always drawn to ideas about the finite and the infinite, and she often wonders (or despairs) at how they might be reconciled (for instance, how the individual person, stuck in finite, mortal life can become one with eternity, which is infinite and immortal). In this poem, there seems to be more than a hint of suspicion that her own individual life is blotted out by the laws of the universe (the laws, that is, according to the Chrisitan paradigm, though a scientific one might offer no more consolation). All the the “multitudes” that ever existed will be “effaced,” not only in comparison to this final multitude, but obliterated in the general sense. Every “star” will be “dissolved” or “annulled.” Every person’s life will be flattened out into the same eternal plane, removing whatever distinction from each other their lives had.

    The fourth stanza also seems to capture some of this anxiety about annihilation. A “solemnity” will “prevail” over all of the individuals, so that their shared doom will “possess each—separate Consciousness.” Doesn’t that sound like fun? Just in case we think it does, the speaker quickly tells us what it will be like: “August—Absorbed—Numb.” “August” sounds nice enough, though a bit stiff. “Absorbed” has at least two senses, not only will our attention (our “general attendance”?) be rapt, but we will be “absorbed” into a collective fate. And “Numb”? That doesn’t sound good at all. It sounds like oblivion. Dickinson’s alternative for the line is not any better. She keeps “August,” but “Absorbed” becomes “Resistless” and “Numb” becomes “Dumb.” The Resurrection is described as overwhelming (in the bad sense), depriving people of their senses and their voices whether they like it or not. (This is the only line, by the way, with an inverted foot at the beginning, so Dickinson is calling our attention to it.)

    How can the final Resurrection be “significant” to the speaker, then? Only because it robs her of her significance. If the poem has a dispassionate tone, as you say, and I think it does too, then perhaps that tone reflects her own feelings of insignificance.

    As always, I love your blog. The Blake illustration is wonderful, and the stories about the sermons revealing. It says a lot that Dickison’s family (often painted as so austere) had a sense of humor about their own religion, doesn’t it?

    1. You heighten my own sense of the almost numb quality of the poem in your discussion of the effacement and flattening out of individuality. I can almost feel Dickinson suppressing the enjoyment of her own quirkiness to flatten out her words and tone. It's Vesuvius below Kansas.

  2. Her tone feels less than mocking, but clearly skeptical, as evidenced by the final question - is this really significant to ME? Except for her usual qualifier (“I suppose -“) she is not present until the very last (questioning) word. She views the event completely clinically - from analyzing atomic structure to cosmic import - as if writing a lab report. In the end, she doesn’t know what import it has for the universe or for herself. Indeed, who really does?

  3. The strict regularity of its form adds to its clinical nature, I think.

  4. “So, Reader, what do you think?”

    Stanza 1 sets the religion theme; Stanzas 2-4 regurgitate religious gobbledegook a ’la John, author of Revelations; Stanza 5 asks what does all this have to do with me, or anyone else, for that matter.

  5. This poem reminds me of my favourite passage of Rilke's 9th Elegy, (my translation is in square brackets) : "Namenlos bin ich zu dir entschlossen, von weit her. Immer warst du im Recht, und dein heiliger Einfall ist der vertrauliche Tod.
    Siehe, ich lebe. Woraus? Weder Kindheit noch Zukunft werden weniger . . . . . Überzähliges Dasein entspringt mir im Herzen.."
    [Anonymously, I have decided to be with you from afar. You have always been right, and your highest idea is confident death.
    Behold, I live. As what? Neither childhood nor future grow less. . . . . Superpositioned existence wells up in my heart.]