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04 April 2020

I had no Cause to be awake—

I had no Cause to be awake—
My Best—was gone to sleep—
And Morn a new politeness took—
And failed to wake them up—
But called the others—clear—
And passed their Curtains by—
Sweet Morning—when I oversleep—
Knock—Recollect—to Me—

I looked at Sunrise—Once—
And then I looked at Them—
And wishfulness in me arose—
For Circumstance the same—

'Twas such an Ample Peace—
It could not hold a Sigh—
'Twas Sabbath—with the Bells divorced—                        [Bells] reversed
'Twas Sunset—all the Day—                                              ['Twas] Sundown

So choosing but a Gown—
And taking but a Prayer—
The Only Raiment I should need—
I struggled—and was There—
                                                            Fr662 (1863)  J542

Jine Wang, a Chinese scholar, writes that this poem is among those where Dickinson espouses suicide as a "possible solution to pain."  I've struggled against that reading but without complete success. The last stanza seems to suggest, at least superficially, that the speaker waged a successful struggle to join the dear departed in a peaceful, eternal Sabbath sunset.
            The poem boldly begins with the opposition of those who will not wake to those whom Morn awakens -- and the speaker wondering why she/he is awake. She feels no reason to rise when her 'Best' lay buried. The year this poem was written, 1863, saw some of the war's bloodiest battles, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga. So while the Best might be friends and family, they might instead be Civil War dead. We do not know.
            We also do not know who the speaker is. Dickinson makes it clear that when she writes in first person "it does not mean – me– but a supposed person" (L268). Except for the Gown at the end, the speaker might be a soldier thinking of his fallen comrades. She might be a grieving woman Dickinson read about or imagined, or someone who has lead a hard and difficult life. Or herself. But what is common to all is the yearning for peace.
Civil War ambulance: the roof unrolls into side 'curtains'
The first stanza, two stanzas compressed into one, looks from the present to both the past and the future. The speaker wakes in the present but then thinks of those whom Morn quietly passes by – a 'new politeness' towards the newly dead. The 'curtains' of the dead might be grave clothes or crypts or it might be the curtains on funeral and ambulance wagons. Then the speaker addresses Morn directly about a future time when she herself (or he) will 'oversleep'. Don't pass me by then, she asks; instead, Knock and remind me about how I once felt about death, or at least about a death-like state
            The next two stanzas are the story of those feelings. They start with another morning. The speaker looks at the Sunrise and then looks at 'Them' – the same 'them', presumably, who are the sleepers in the first stanza: the dead. When she regards the sleepers she wishes she were in their circumstances: the Peace is so pervasive, so full, that it 'could not hold a Sigh.' It was a Sunday but instead of church bells ringing in both morning and evening, they rang only at night – it was 'Sunset – all the Day'.

This introduces the poem's contrast between morning and evening – the beginning of life and ventures and actions versus the letting go into timeless sleep and death. In a transcendental sense, this isn't the sleep of the dead waiting in their silk-lined coffin for some distant Resurrection ("Safe in their alabaster chambers –" Fr124), but rather the cessation of striving and suffering. Nor is it a space of negation but rather of ampleness. It is into this eternal Ample Peace that the speaker, with only Gown and Prayer, has struggled to arrive. It is the making of this decision that she asks 'Sweet Morning' to remind her of.
One reading of this poem, and one that avoids the complications of past, present, and future in the reading I just described, is that the speaker struggled to enter the Amplitude not through death but through a meditative or trance state.

Frankly, Reader, none of my thinkings and jottings, and squintings and analyzings lead me confidently through the stories in this piece. Like so many of Dickinson's poems, it is enigmatic at the core, its meanings kaleidoscopic. I welcome your thoughts.


  1. Susan, I can't add anything more. You have offered several plausible 'slants' and all are worthy of pondering. I also appreciate the reference to her reminder that she is not always the speaker. Be well!

  2. I have been a reader of these master works since I was 13, and have never found need to scrutinize her intent. However, I do enjoy reading others’ insights and sharing my own when the mood strikes me. I may be way off, but I think it’s perfectly safe and reasonable to discard the notion that this particular poem is anything but intensely and closely personal. I’m my estimation, this is absolutely the cry of sorrow and separation for a person whose empathy was crippling, and whose doubt and disbelief about spirit or “heaven” presented her with emotional and mental anguish so profound, the plain fact of death and loss overwhelmed her capacity to desire for anything but nothing. Finally. I think she was able to project that innate knowing of inexplicable and unbearable loss and use analogy and metaphor to apply similar themes in many of her poems. It’s the conscious mind’s howling query to the cruel and impersonal impertinence of death, in the context of not believing in “heaven” or ultimate reunion. It’s the pain one expresses when your “best” has died and you feel you truly will never see them again. For that person to be gone from the world and from your grasp can be utterly destabilizing and ruinous. And leaves this realm feeling moot. Why bother?