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30 May 2024

Upon Concluded Lives

Upon Concluded Lives
There's nothing cooler falls—
Than Life's sweet Calculations—
The mixing Bells and Palls—

Make Lacerating Tune—
To Ears the Dying Side—
'Tis Coronal—and Funeral—
Saluting—in the Road—

    -F722, J735, Fascicle 35, 1863

This is a poem with intense feelings about life and death inextricably mixed together. Let's start with the first three lines:

    Upon Concluded Lives/ There's nothing cooler falls—/Than Life's sweet Calculations—”

You can read these first three lines a few different ways. At first I thought these lines might mean that the sweet calculations you’ve taken in your life, the risks you've taken, the path you've chosen and all the love on that path, are refreshing you and keeping you cool in the heated struggle of dying. But then I looked at the alternative word Dickinson supplied for "sweet," which is "new." The calculations aren't ones you've taken in the past. They are the ones you are adding up now that you are dying. 

    The mixing Bells and Palls—

The sweet calculations are the addition of bells and palls. Why would this be sweet? Maybe because the contrast is so achingly beautiful. This duality between life and death runs through the rest of the poem. Bells here are surely funeral bells, but I think they are also meant to invoke wedding bells and music in general. “The mixing Bells and Palls” expands on the idea of "sweet calculations" falling cool on concluding lives. Sweet calculations might well be symbolized by bells, which is “mixing” with "palls" or funeral shrouds. 

From the Dickinson Lexicon:


A. Burial cloth; covering placed over the body of the deceased at a funeral; [word play] pale color of a corpse; bloodless appearance of the body after death.

B. Royal robe; coronation vestment; ceremonial cloak of rich purple cloth; majestic mantle signifying high honor or status.

A pall can mean both the pale color of death and coronation robe. Nice one, Emily. They both fit beautifully here, as does the ringing rhyme of “palls” with “bells” and “falls”

Love gained at the cusp of Love lost, that is the crossroads upon which this poem is situated.

    Make Lacerating Tune—

The sense of impending loss may be "sweet", but it is also violent in its intensity. It is a “lacerating tune.” Lacerating is a sharp word. It sounds like a snapping whip. Those sweet sounding bells paradoxically make a song that wounds deep.

    To Ears the Dying Side—

If the mix of bells and palls makes a lacerating tune to ears on the dying side, this beg a question. What lies on the OTHER side of dying?  No music at all? Which begs another question. Which is worse, heartbreaking music, or none at all?

    Tis Coronal—and Funeral—

The sense of pleasure mixing with pain continues. Now we are mixing "coronal," connoting a royally lived life, with "funeral," connoting death. "Coronal" and "funeral" rhyme, suggesting that the more royal the life, the greater the loss at death. Conversely, the greater the loss at death, the more royal the life.

    Saluting—in the Road—

The two, royal life and death, salute each other on the road of life, one coming as the other is going. Brrr.

      -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

P.S. Poems like this one that clearly function as a song prefer to be sung. Try singing this one out loud. Each poem suggests its own melody. This one for instance works best melodically as two tercets followed by a couplet. 

1 comment:

  1. Adam, reading your explication birthed a new understanding of this poem. The dual definition of “pall” was new to me, but OED agrees with EDLex, the word in its “fine royal robe” sense dates to pre-1000 AD Old English and is “Now archaic and poetic”: ED likely knew both definitions.

    EDLex’s definition of “coronal” is also dual, “Crown; gold circlet; royal headpiece; [fig.] garland; wreath of flowers; [metonymy] coronation; ceremony of crowning; endowment of a royal status; promotion to a more elevated position; [metaphor] resurrection; sanctification.”

    To me, this poem deals with ED’s dueling feelings, her love of this Earth’s natural “Nature” and her dreams of Heaven’s supernatural “Queen of Calvary” crown, specifically, her “Mrs. Wadsworth” crown:

    • ‘Title divine, is mine’ (F194),
    • ‘Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!’ (F267),
    • ‘There came a Day—at Summer's full’ (F325),
    • ‘He touched me, so I live to know’ (F349),
    • ‘I know that He exists’ (F365),
    • ‘Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —’ (F596).

    To the dying person, the two stanzas enjamb painfully:

    “The mixing Bells and Palls –
    Make Lacerating Tune—
    To Ears the Dying Side—”,

    but, after Death,

    “Upon Concluded Lives
    There's nothing cooler falls -
    Than Life's sweet Calculations -”

    The competing desires salute, like two passing ships,
    [ED’s alternative words in brackets]

    “'Tis Coronal—and Funeral—
    Saluting [Confronting, Contrasting]—in the Road—”

    ED has been here before:

    “So—faces on two Decks—look back—
    Bound to opposing Lands—” (F325, 1862)