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.
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.