On Choosing the Poems
While Fascicle 18 contains seventeen poems and touches on a number of ideas and themes, we selected poems that illustrate Dickinson’s “choosing not choosing” (Sharon Cameron’s great phrase) beliefs regarding the afterlife. “It’s thoughts— and just one Heart— ” begins the Fascicle, painting a picture of an idyllic but variable scene. The speaker suggests “A Bird — if they — prefer — ” and “A Hill — perhaps —/ Perhaps — the profile of a Mill,” implying that the scene is subject to various preferences and ideas of beauty. The poem’s final stanza suggests that this simple but personalized scene is “Heaven — about —” or “At least — a Counterfeit — ,” which the speaker would be “almost / not quite — Content —” to accept as “Immortality.”
The remaining poems we have selected take hold of this idea of an “almost / not quite — Content —” version of “Immortality” or “Heaven” to illustrate different possibilities for the afterlife. Some are beautiful: “Better — than Music!” ends the Fascicle with an ecstatic description of worshipers gathering around the throne of God. The first poem on sheet five, “It will be Summer — eventually,” expresses a similar idea.
By contrast, some poems are agnostic: “Those fair—fictitious People—” meditates on the belief in a blissful afterlife that many people held in Dickinson’s time without taking a firm stance on its nature or existence. “This World is not conclusion” takes a stance on afterlife’s existence in the first line but expresses a global uncertainty about its nature. Others like “As far from pity, as complaint — ” and “My Reward for Being, was This —” offer cynical views of immortality; the former presents death as strictly final, while the latter is an indignant protest against a disappointing immortal existence.
It's thoughts – and just One Heart –
And Old Sunshine – about –
Make frugal – Ones – Content –
And two or three – for Company -
Opon a Holiday -
Crowded – as Sacrament -
Books – when the Unit -
Spare the Tenant – long eno' -
A Picture – if it Care -
Itself – a + Gallery too rare -
For needing more -
Flowers – to keep the eyes – from
going awkward -
When it snows -
A Bird – if they – prefer -
Though winter fire – sing clear
as Plover -
To our – ear -
A Landscape – not so great
To suffocate the eye -
A Hill – perhaps -
Perhaps – the profile of a Mill
Turned by the wind -
Tho' such - are luxuries -
It's thoughts – and just two
And Heaven – about -
At least – a Counterfeit -
We would not have Correct -
And Immortality – can be
Not quite – Content -
+Vatican too rare
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet VI, Fascicle 18, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 33, from the fascicle (B), as three stanzas of 6, 16, and 7 lines, with the alternative not adopted.
Cristanne Miller notes that this poem, which Dickinson placed at the head of the Fascicle, has a complicated ancestry. It
responds to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1858 “Contentment,” which revised John Quincy Adams’s famous “The Wants of Man” (1841), itself a response to Oliver Goldsmith’s 1765 ballad, “The Hermit.” ED probably knew all three poems.
We also might include in this list Chapter 2 from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”
Entering this masculine rhetorical space, Dickinson rewrites the poetic topos of what is necessary for contentment, and it is worth comparing her list (thoughts, One/Two Heart, some company, books, artwork, flowers, a bird for song, a landscape) to what the male poets find necessary. Also, she expresses her pursuit of contentment in a form of unstable rhythm and meter. The first stanza begins with a series of trimeter lines rhyming, loosely, aabccb, but that regularity flees by the second stanza and we get only echoes of it in the rest of the poem.
It is also notable that this poem has the first occurrence of the word “sacrament” in the Fascicle. This is a loaded word, introducing religion or spirituality, with a sense of covenant or betrothal, to the larger Fascicle. Dickinson’s Webster’s Dictionary offers this definition of sacrament:
In present usage, an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace; or more particularly, a solemn religious ceremony enjoined by Christ, the head of the Christian church, to be observed by his followers, by which their special relation to him is created, or their obligations to him renewed and ratified. Thus baptism is called a sacrament, for by it persons are separated from the world, brought into Christ's visible church, and laid under particular obligations to obey his precepts. The eucharist or communion of the Lord's supper, is also a sacrament, for by commemorating the death and dying love of Christ, Christians avow their special relation to him, and renew their obligations to be faithful to their divine Master.
As noted in the introduction, this poem announces the language of indeterminacy and imagery of someone out there (reader, speaker, poem’s subject) making choices: “perhaps,” “if they — prefer.” By the end of the poem, however, the requirements for contentment have changed very subtly. In the last stanza, it is “just two Heart–.” Dickinson’s unconventional grammar, using the singular noun with a pluralizing adjective, suggests that the “two” here are really “one.”"Just" is a minimizing word that, in Dickinson's usage, often has a maximizing effect.
What is the poem's attitude towards immortality at the end? Is the speaker describing Heaven on earth, “a Counterfeit” that is “almost– / Not quite – Content” and needs an experience of pain or sadness to make the contentment ring true?
Dickinson, Emily. Emily Dickinson’s Poems, As She Preserved Them. Ed. Cristianne Miller. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, of Harvard University, 2016, 755 n. 171.
As far from pity, as complaint — (F364A, J496)
As far from pity, as com –
As cool to speech – as stone –
As numb to Revelation
As if my Trade were Bone –
As far from Time – as
As near yourself – Today –
As Children, to the
Rainbow’s scarf –
Or Sunset’s Yellow play
To eyelids in the Sepulchre –
How dumb the Dancer lies –
While Color’s Revelations break –
And blaze – the Butterflies!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet VI, Fascicle 18, dated ca. 1862.
Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Poems (1896), 155, with the alternative adopted.
This is the third poem in the Fascicle. By contrast to the irregularity of “It’s Thoughts – and just one Heart,” this poem is a near perfect example of the hymn stanza called common meter, 8686 rhyming abcb. The only line that diverges from the pattern is “As numb to Revelation,” which is short one syllable, perhaps on account of the “numbness.”
The first two stanzas are a series of comparisons or similes, one of Dickinson’s preferred figures. Similes, like metaphors, are made up of vehicle and tenor: A is like B. But here, we never fully get the tenor of these similes, and have to infer it––also, a classic Dickinson tactic. What or who is “As far from pity … as numb to Revelation … As far from Time…, etc.? And are they all the same? Is the speaker talking about herself (the person implied in “my Trade”), who, the speaker implies, is “numb” or, we cannot help hearing, “dumb,” a word that appears in the last stanza, to the traditional teachings about immortality in the Book of Revelation? The address widens out in the second stanza to “yourself” as compared to “Children.” Is she talking to herself in the second person, talking to the reader?
Does this poem represent the “there is no afterlife” point of view in the fascicle? The striking line, “As far from Time — as History,” hints at a conception of non-linear time. Certainly, at the end, the word “Sepulchre” takes us into the grave, perhaps Jesus’s grave before his resurrection, but who is the “Dancer”? Revelation reappears in the last stanza but means something very different from its first appearance, “Color’s Revelations,” a “blaze” like fire or sunrise (a figure of resurrection) and the gorgeous wings of “butterflies” flitting through the air.
Those fair – fictitious People – (F369A, J499)
Those + fair – fictitious People –
The Women – plucked away
From our +familiar +Lifetime -
The Men of Ivory –
Those Boys and Girls, in Canvas –
Who +stay opon the Wall
In everlasting Keepsake –
+ Can anybody tell?
We trust – in places
+Beyond our +faint Conjecture –
Our +dizzy Estimate –
Remembering ourselves, we trust –
Yet Blesseder – than we –
Through Knowing – where we
only +hope –
+ Receiving – where we – pray -
Of Expectation – also –
With transport, that would
be a pain
Except for Holiness –
Esteeming us – as Exile –
Themself – admitted Home –
Through + gentle Miracle of
The Way ourself, must come –
+ new [fair] + familiar notice • familiar fingers [Familiar Lifetime]
+address • gazing [Lifetime]
+ dwell [stay]
+ Where are they — Can you tell — [Can anybody tell?]
+ no variant given for Beyond
+guess [hope] +beholding [Receiving]
+ Curious • Easy [gentle] +slipped away [plucked away]
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet VI, Fascicle 18. Includes 13 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Further Poems (1929), 101, with the alternatives for lines 3 ("familiar notice"), 6, 7, 8, 11, and 12 adopted. Stanzas 4 and 5, here treated as one, were separated in derivative collections.
This poem, the eighth in the Fascicle sharing a sheet with “I envy Seas, whereon He rides" (F368A, J498) is one of the poems that shifts form in the middle. The first two stanzas are 7666 syllables rhyming abcb with two mediating stanzas of 8676 and 8686, which then resolve into two stanzas of 7686. The changes may be small but they cause subtle disturbances and an expansion and contraction movement, like breathing. And that is, perhaps, because this is a poem about expiration, the “gentle Miracle of Death – / The way ourself, must come –” There are also elements that connect this poem to the themes of Resurrection and Spring: the emotions of “Expectation” and “anticipating,” for example.
What does it mean to call the memorialized dead “fictitious” — could the speaker be suggesting that no one should speak ill of the dead, but also that the afterlife narrative we create for them is a fiction? The poem lays out a clear dichotomy between this life and the next, between the dead who “know” and “receive” while the living “hope” and “pray” and have “Conjecture” and “Estimate,” between “Exile” and “Home.” But the poem also carefully resists admitting to a belief in the afterlife. Instead, it describes observations of responses and reactions to death: painting pictures of the dead on “canvas” that hang “opon the Wall,” and all the “keepsakes.” The Victorian era was famous for its “mourning jewelry,” some of it made out the hair of the dead.
It is worthwhile to trace the evolution of pronouns in this poem. As the poem moves into the second person plural, the last stanza moves the self-referential pronouns from the plural into the singular: “Themself” and “ourself” are not grammatically correct but communicate something about this “transport” that everyone experiences— but alone.
[no image available]
This world is not conclusion.
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music, But positive, as sound.
It beckons and it baffles;
Philosophies don't know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
Sagacity must go.
To +guess it puzzles scholars;
To gain it, men have shown
Contempt of generations,
And crucifixion known.
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the
+Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the
That nibbles at the soul –
+proves it + Sure – + Mouse –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in in Poems: Packet VI, Fascicle 18. Includes 13 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published: Lines 1-12 in Todd, The Outlook, 53 (25 January 1896), 140, and in Poems (1896), 139 with the alternative for line 2 adopted. The final 8 lines were published separately in Bolts of Melody (1945), 290 with alternative not adopted.
This is the twelfth poem on Sheet 4 in Fascicle 18, coming after “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” Its history is revealing. When it appeared in Poems (1896), the editors, Mabel Todd and Thomas Higginson, gave it the affirmative title “Immortality,” but only printed the first twelve lines! That is, they let the poem’s exploration of religious doubt get up to the Crucifixion, then cut off the rest where “Faith slips” and doubts eventually “nibble” horribly at the soul. The last eight lines appeared in the collection of poems Susan Dickinson started to prepare from the manuscripts she possessed, which her daughter Martha completed in 1945, with a note appended suggesting that these lines might be part of “After great pain.” The two parts were not reunited into the poem Dickinson copied into the Fascicle until Thomas Johnson’s edition in 1955.
It is not hard to grasp the poem’s movement from certainty through skepticism to deep doubt, but it is Dickinson's form that is notable. To begin with, she uses a version of the hymn form, a genre that usually celebrated faith, to explore her deep misgivings about religion’s ability ever to settle the question. Then, Dickinson opens with a statement of certainty that threatens to stop the poem and arrest thinking and discussion about the existence of an afterlife by the very unusual use of a period at the end of the first line. One hardly needs to go on, this bit of punctuation implies. The four line passage on “Faith” personifies it as an embarrassed young girl, giggling and blushing if anyone observes her “slips,” reaching for a pathetic “twig of Evidence,” and ending up asking a weather “vane” to lead her to truth. Not reliable.
The last four line section contains an unforgettable image that seems to echo Karl Marx’s famous statement: “Religion is the opium of the people” (or “opiate of the masses,” as it was originally translated), which appeared in the "Introduction" to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, published separately from the main work in 1844. Apparently, many other thinkers in the 19th century used a similar metaphor, some of them referring to Marx. Wikipedia list many of them, but not Dickinson. Perhaps because she contradicts them. In her remarkable image, “narcotics” are ineffectual in quieting the ache of a tooth or the action of a sharp, aggressive incisor—profound doubts about the afterlife —that assail the soul.
Sources and Further Reading
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 209-10.
Miller, Cristanne. A Poet’s Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, 49-54.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010 173-76.
My Reward for Being, was This – (F374B, J343)
My Reward for Being,
was This -
My premium – My Bliss -
An Admiralty, less -
A Sceptre – penniless -
And Realms – just Dross -
When Thrones accost my Hands -
With "Me, Miss, Me" -
I'll unroll Thee -
Dominions dowerless – beside this Grace -
Election – Vote -
The Ballots of Eternity, will show just that.
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles, 1860-1862 and Fascicle 18. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published: Both versions are presented in Bolts of Melody (1945), 308-9, among the poems incomplete or unfinished, from transcripts of A and B. The first is arranged as three quatrains; for the second, a footnote provided the text of the variant last stanza.
This is the fourteenth poem in Fascicle 18, sharing a sheet with “It will be Summer – eventually” (F374A, J342). It shows a good deal of metrical disturbance and irregularity with several dimeter lines (two foot lines of four syllables) that evoke breathlessness or truncation.
We have seen some of this diction before: “scepter,” “realms,” “throne,” “dominion” —all royal imagery, which in other poems suggest entitlement and female independence. Here, this elevation of rank seems disappointing: “less,” “penniless,” “just Dross,” relatively meaningless “beside this Grace.” To describe this other state, the poem turns to the language of election. The final lines suggest God’s election of the worthy Puritan saints, choosing who does and does not go to heaven. But there is also the suggestion of a democratic contrast with the sovereign imagery in the beginning of the poem, hinting of a revolution in the making.
The appearance of the word “Bliss” links back to the poem “Is Bliss then such abyss” (F370A, J340) from earlier in the Fascicle, and seems to act as a synonym for heaven while also representing earthly bliss. Cynthia Woff argues that the poem’s
language is deliberately and deftly over-determined—toying simultaneously with Biblical and religious connotations, meanings that have to do with American politics and business, and diction that alludes rather specifically to the narrowness of a woman’s particular choices.
Wolff, Cynthia. “Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the Task of Discovering a Usable Past.” Massachusetts Review 30.4 (Winter 1989): 629-44, 641.
Better – than Music! (F378A, J503)
Better – than Music!
For I – who heard it -
I was used – to the Birds -
This – was different – 'Twas
Of all tunes I knew -
and more -
'Twas'nt contained – like other
No one could play it – the
second time -
But the Composer – perfect
Perish with him – that
Children – so – +told how Brooks
in Eden -
Bubbled a better – melody -
Quaintly infer – Eve's great
Urging the feet – that would -
not – fly -
Children – + matured – are wiser -
Eden – a legend – dimly +told -
Eve – and the Anguish -
Grandame's story -
But – I was telling a
tune – I heard -
Not such a strain – the
Church – baptizes -
When the last Saint -
goes up the Aisles -
Not such a stanza
splits the silence -
When the Redemption +strikes her Bells -
Let me not + spill – it's
smallest cadence -
Humming – for promise – when
Humming – until my faint
Drop into tune – around the
+ assured that + grown up
+ learned • crooned + shakes
+lose • waste
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet VI, Fascicle 18, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 235, from a transcript of A.
This ecstatic affirmation of a joyful afterlife concludes Fascicle 18 and is on a sheet by itself. Did Dickinson mean to imply that it is her last word, at least in this small collection of poems, about the resurrection, afterlife, and immortality? It stands in stark contrast with “This World is not conclusion,” which calls the afterlife “invisible as music.” In this transformative moment, the speaker hears a music “uncontained,” composed by a “perfect Mozart” that transports her to Heaven or gives her a preview, or is she already there and speaking posthumously?
In the two middle stanzas, the speaker considers children’s perceptions of music in “Eden,” which are muddied by “Eve’s great surrender” to the serpent’s temptation, and which they learn to regard as “a legend.” But this is a digression for the speaker, who wants to get back to “telling a tune – I heard.” She cannot hear such a tune in Church, at sacraments like baptism, evoked in the first poem in the Fascicle, or even at the “Redemption” itself. The speaker fears “spilling” or, as the variants indicate, “losing” or “wasting” a smidge, and so hums it as “promise” or “Rehearsal” until she can sing at full throat at the “throne” of God.
Cristanne Miller links this poem with others in which Dickinson describes how
we earthly “Laureates” learn “Transport” from life’s “Pain” through vocal training or stanzas that become full song only after death. … Melody is the structure of both this life and its spiritual continuation, and melody is conceived in “stanza[s]”… Religious, secular, poetic, and metaphorical music mingles for Dickinson in a foundation of metered, stanzaic time and tunes.
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 54-55.