Poetry is both the most and least abstract of the literary arts. It paints the human condition in broad strokes, and yet it can’t do so without recognizable faces. Among the many subgenres of poetry, the elegy is, to me at least, among the most consoling. The beauty of the poem’s form itself, its diction, its music, help the reader’s or listener’s soul to make something, add something concrete to the sum of the world. The poem is not the same thing as what was lost; but it is something, and it suggests thoughts and feelings beyond its own boundaries. Though much elegiac poetry is religious, it needn’t be religious to begin redressing a loss.
What Dickinson’s poem adds to the sum of the world is a strange, indeed unique, mixture of effects. Her poem is funny: Death is your polite Saturday night date with his own set of wheels. Her poem is Gothic and creepy. It’s a mystery, an allegory, a singsong ballad, a hymn. It dares to be everything, to cover a single, final day and all of experience. Even at funerals we find it permissible to laugh a little. America’s hermit poet is being social with us here, inviting us to smile even at the thought of our own demise.
Mary Jo Salter is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and co-chair of The Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University
Because I could not stop for Death
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—
Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—
Since then—‘tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses Heads
Were toward Eternity—
Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON: VARIORUM EDITION, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
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