Reading Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”

I think of Emily Dickinson going about her daily business: cooking and baking, gardening, cleaning, sometimes entertaining guests and throughout all of it capturing words or phrases, maybe writing them down but most often capturing them in her mind and holding onto them as she works—then, when all her work is done, sitting down alone in her room with the door shut and bringing those words out, spilling them onto the desk like curious pebbles and composing her poetry. Placed spaciously, pinned with dashes, capitalized, the words are etched onto paper still seeming to glow with the wonder in which they first appeared.

Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
and untouched by noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone –

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
and Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop –
And Doges surrender –
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disk of Snow.

However, this we know is the silent second version of the poem. Dickinson had originally written a noisy second verse for it:

Light – laughs the – breeze
In her Castle above them.
Babbles the – Bee in a stolid Ear.
Pipe the – Sweet – Birds in ignorant cadence,
Ah, what sagacity – perished here!

Dickinson gave the poem to her sister who responded with the criticism that the second verse clashed with the “ghostly shimmer of the first.” Indeed, the rewritten second verse—the silent geometric one—provides the poem an additional apparitional quality with the arcs, lines, discs and dots of its strangely modern geometry.

After Dickinson’s death Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson, with the best of intentions no doubt, cobbled the two versions together, making a three stanza poem—and took out Emily’s dashes and regularized the punctuation, creating a text that, while certainly readable, can only be considered a distortion of Dickinson’s poetry.

Susan Dickinson’s criticism might suggest that she saw irreverence toward the silent dignity of the Christian dead. That laughing, babbling and piping, ignorant though it is, comes as a rather shocking contrast to the stolid ear and perished sagacity. The rewritten version preserves and enhances the solemnity of the first verse. We can’t be sure to what degree Dickinson may have been attempting to please her sister with the second version, but it seems fairly certain she was pleasing herself. What if we only had the first version? I think we would have another fine Dickinson poem. But the second version is more than that.

Its imagery seems fairly clear: Dickinson is referring to the Christian dead, awaiting the resurrection. Time goes on, nature grand and lofty in vast overarching movements, and the human world by sharp contrast dropping, falling, failing, silent and evanescent. The last two lines are the most extraordinary. First of all they evoke silence. This silence seems to be the solemnity Emily granted her sister. In addition they comprise an image, a very peculiar image. In my first encounter with the poem this image filled my imagination, pushing other considerations aside. By itself it seems so modern, even contemporary, geometric: dots on a white disk. Think the whole history of modern geometric abstraction which postdates Dickinson’s death by a decade or two. To have rested the poem on such an image seems unusual for a poem of its time. The image serves as a rather abstract simile for the failing falling diadems: these crowns will all disappear like an image in melting snow. The image also calls to mind that of a communion wafer, and so it seems to uphold the faithful. Perhaps this would please her sister more than the noisy second verse that seemed to use nature in a more ambiguous manner toward the Christian faith.

And yet perhaps something of Dickinson’s doubt in the Christian faith remains in the silent version. I’m not interested in being one of those who stubbornly reads his own biases into Dickinson’s enigmatic verses. But the possibilities that Dickinson dwelled in allow this doubt. I see dignity, solemnity and respect in the second version of the poem, but I don’t see a ringing endorsement of faith either. Indeed to end the poem as she does fastens the reader’s mind in time, encouraging the view of a sleeping, waiting faithful, but at the same time the image echoes in perpetuity. Where is the hope here? It seems to be asleep with the faithful, frozen in the ever-falling snow of dead upon dead. Perhaps faith must be renewed. And we come to this poem as to communion, to partake of the wafer again. I say this to be fair to the faithful. But I am not a believer, and it is clear from any number of Dickinson’s poems that she had her doubts, and I deeply respect those who doubt. The profound ambiguity of this poem is very beautiful.

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3 Responses to Reading Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”

  1. hedgewitch says:

    I am partial to Dickinson ( even though I met her first as a 50’s schoolgirl, in her propered-up, corseted, edited version ) but frequently find her symbolism so deeply personal that it eludes me, or if it does carry me somewhere, it is likely to be a place I imagine, more than she–somehow, this doesn’t detract at all from her poetry. Thanks for this perspective on a poem I’m not familiar with but instantly fell in love with when I got to ‘Rafter of Satin’–that shiny inside padding of the coffin meant only, surely, to appease the queasiness of the living. That rewritten second stanza–and the removed original–are very representative of her modern cast of mind, as you say. How out of sync her life and her mind seem to be, yet I’ve always felt she had made herself quite happy with it over time. Your analysis and history here are a gateway into the poem on a deeper level, and to some extent into the churching of death itself–I too have sensed doubt in her works, as well as an early ebullience of faith that somehow seems to have morphed beyond acceptance into the shadow realm of pure metaphor. Referencing your last line, for me, ambiguity is almost always beautiful, but few can use it both as gracefully and as naturally as Dickinson.

    • I first met the same Emily Dickinson. I’ll be honest with you, I like that book. I think her editors did a good job of crafting beautiful poems. Unfortunately, they’re not what Dickinson actually wrote! And, face it, the real Dickinson is more difficult. Some of her punctuation and dashes are so unusual, it’s hard to understand what she was doing. And yes her images can be weird. But her rhythms and diction are so often compelling they keep me fascinated even when the content or punctuation is puzzling.

      “morphed beyond acceptance into the shadow realm of pure metaphor” is a great way of putting it. She went deep, very deep into her mind, further, I’m sure, than most people care to go into theirs.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: Your scene-setting in the opening paragraph is wonderfully vivid, and I so appreciate your insightful window into the poem. Your observations on the imagery as offering a “strangely modern geometry” were particularly striking. As I read the first and second stanzas of the “final” poem with your thoughts in mind, the first stanza seems to me to offer its own sort of scene-setting, evocative language, but not so terribly difficult to parse, while the second stanza lifts into the atmosphere on an imaginative flight. The more I look at the lines “Worlds scoop their Arcs –/and Firmaments – row –,” for example, the more marvelously peculiar the words become.

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