Sharon Cameron

Sharon Cameron: On 712 ("Because I could not stop for Death")

Yvor Winters has spoken of the poem's subject as "the daily realization of the imminence of death—it is a poem of departure from life, an intensely conscious leave-taking." But in its final claim to actually experience death, Winters has found it fraudulent. There is, of course, a way out of or around the dilemma of posthumous speech and that is to suppose that the entire ride with death is, as the last stanza indicates, a "surmise," and " 'tis Centuries—," a colloquial hyperbole. But we ought not insist that the poem's interpretation pivot on the importance of this word. For we ignore its own struggle with extraordinary claims if we insist too quickly on its adherence to traditional limits.

In one respect, the speaker's assertions that she "could not stop for Death—" must be taken as the romantic protest of a self not yet disabused of the fantasy that her whims, however capricious, will withstand the larger temporal demands of the external world. Thus the first line, like any idiosyncratic representation of the world, must come to grips with the tyranny of more general meanings, not the least of which can be read in the inviolable stand of the universe, every bit as willful as the isolate self. But initially the world seems to cater to the self's needs; since the speaker does not have time (one implication of "could not stop") for death, she is deferred to by the world ("He kindly stopped for me—"). In another respect, we must see the first line not only as willful (had not time for) but also as the admission of a disabling fact (could not). The second line responds to the doubleness of conception. What, in other words, in one context is deference, in another is coercion, and since the poem balances tonally between these extremes it is important to note the dexterity with which they are compacted in the first two lines.

There is, of course, further sense in which death stops for the speaker, and that is in the fusion I alluded to earlier between interior and exterior senses of time, so that the consequence of the meeting in the carriage is the death of otherness. The poem presumes to rid death of its otherness, to familiarize it, literally to adopt its perspective and in so doing to effect a synthesis between self and other, internal time and the faster, more relentless beat of the world. Using more traditional terms to describe the union, Allen Tate speaks of the poem's "subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea of death has presented to most romantic poets, love being a symbol interchangeable with death." It is true that the poem is charged with eroticism whose end or aim is union, perhaps as we conventionally know it, a synthesis of self and other for the explicit purpose of the transformation of other or, if that proves impossible, for the loss of self. Death's heralding phenomenon, the loss of self, would be almost welcomed if self at this point could be magically fused with other. . . .

. . . death is essence of the universe as well as its end, and the self is wooed and won by this otherness that appears to define the totality of experience.

Indeed the trinity of death, self, immortality, however ironic a parody of the holy paradigm, at least promises a conventional fulfillment of the idea that the body's end coincides with the soul's everlasting life. But, as in "Our journey had advanced," death so frequently conceptualized as identical with eternity here suffers a radical displacement from it. While both poems suggest a discrepancy between eternity and death, the former poem hedges on the question of where the speaker stands with respect to that discrepancy, at its conclusion seeming to locate her safely in front of or "before" death. "Because I could not stop for Death," on the other hand, pushes revision one step further, daring to leave the speaker stranded in the moment of death.

Along these revisionary lines, the ride to death that we might have supposed to take place through territory unknown, we discover in stanza three to reveal commonplace sights but now fused with spectacle. The path out of the world is also apparently the one through it and in the compression of the three images ("the School, where Children strove," "the Fields of Gazing Grain—," "the Setting Sun—") we are introduced to a new kind of visual shorthand. Perhaps what is extraordinary here is the elasticity of reference, how imposingly on the figural scale the images can weigh while, at the same time, never abandoning any of their quite literal specificity. Hence the sight of the children is a circumscribed one by virtue of the specificity of their placement "At Recess—in the Ring—" and, at the same time, the picture takes on the shadings of allegory. This referential flexibility or fusion of literal and figural meanings is potential in the suggestive connotations of the verb "strove," which is a metaphor in the context of the playground (that is, in its literal context) and a mere descriptive verb in the context of the implied larger world (that is, in its figural context). The "Fields of Gazing Grain—" also suggest a literal picture, but one that leans in the direction of emblem; thus the epithet "Gazing" has perhaps been anthropomorphized from the one-directional leaning of grain in the wind, the object of its gazing the speaker herself. The "Children" mark the presence of the world along one stage of the speaker's journey, the "Gazing Grain—" marks the passing of the world (its harkening after the speaker as she rides away from it), and the "Setting Sun—" marks its past. For at least as the third stanza conceives of it, the journey toward eternity is a series of successive and, in the case of the grain, displaced visions giving way finally to blankness.

But just as after the first two stanzas, we are again rescued in the fourth from any settled conception of this journey. As we were initially not to think of the journey taking place out of the world (and hence with the children we are brought back to it), the end of the third stanza having again moved us to the world's edge, we are redeemed from falling over it by the speaker's correction: "Or rather—He passed Us—." It is the defining movement of the poem to deliver us just over the boundary line between life and death and then to recall us. Thus while the poem gives the illusion of a one-directional movement, albeit a halting one, we discover upon closer scrutiny that the movements are multiple and, as in "I heard a Fly buzz when I died," constitutive of flux, back and forth over the boundary from life to death. Despite the correction, "Or rather—He passed Us—," the next lines register a response that would be entirely appropriate to the speaker's passing of the sun. "The Dews drew" round the speaker, her earthly clothes not only inadequate, but actually falling away in deference to the sensation of "chill—" that displaces them as she passes the boundary of the earth. Thus, on the one hand, "chill—" is a mere physiological response to the setting of the sun at night, on the other, it is a metaphor for the earlier assertion that the earth and earthly goods are being exchanged for something else. Implications in the poem, like the more explicit assertions, are contradictory and reflexive, circling back to underline the very premises they seem a moment ago to have denied. Given such ambiguity, we are constantly in a quandary about how to place the journey that, at anyone point, undermines the very certainty of conception it has previously established.

[Cameron here inserts an analysis of George Herbert's "Redemption"]

While Dickinson's representation of the ride with death is less histrionic, it is as insistent in our coming to terms with the personalization of the even and of its perpetual reenactment in the present. For the grave that is "paused before" in the fifth stanza, with the tombstone lying flat against the ground ("scarcely visible—"), is seen from the outside and then (by the transformation of spatial considerations into temporal ones) is passed by or through: "Since then—'tis Centuries—." The poem's concluding stanza both fulfills the traditional Christian notion that while the endurance of death is essential for the reaching of eternity, the two are not identical, and by splitting death and eternity with the space of "Centuries—," chal1enges that traditional notion. The poem that has thus far played havoc with our efforts to fix its journey in any conventional time or space, on this side of death or the other, concludes with an announcement about the origins of its speech, now explicitly equivocal: "'tis Cen- turies—and yet / Feels shorter than the Day." What in "There's a certain Slant of light" had been a clear relationship between figure and its fulfillment (a sense of perceptive enlightenment accruing from the movement of one to the other) is in this poem manifestly baffling. For one might observe that for all the apparent movement here, there are no real progressions in the poem at all. If the correction "We passed the Setting Sun— / Or rather—He passed Us—" may be construed as a confirmation of the slowness of the drive alluded to earlier in the poem, the last stanza seems to insist that the carriage is standing still, moving if at all, as we say, in place. For the predominant sense of this journey is not simply its endlessness; it is also the curious back and forth sweep of its images conveying, as they do, the perpetual return to what has been perpetually taken leave of.

Angus Fletcher, speaking in terms applicable to "Because I could not stop for Death," documents the characteristics of allegorical journeys as surrealistic in imagery (as for example, the "Gazing Grain—"), paratactic in rhythm or structure (as indeed we can hear in the acknowledged form of movement: "We passed . . . We passed . . . We passed . . . Or rather—He passed Us . . . We Paused . . . "), and almost always incomplete: "It is logically quite natural for the extension to be infinite, since by definition there is no such thing as the whole of any analogy; all analogies are incomplete, and incompletable, and allegory simply records this analogical relation in a dramatic or narrative form."

But while the poem has some of the characteristics of allegory, it nonetheless seems to defy such easy classification. Thus the utterance is not quite allegory because it is not strongly iconographic (its figures do not have a one-to-one correspondence with a representational base), and at the same time, these figures are sufficiently rigid to preclude the freeing up of associations that is characteristic of the symbol. We recall Coleridge's distinction between a symbolic and an allegorical structure. A symbol presupposes a unity with its object. It denies the separateness between subject and object by creating a synecdochic relationship between itself and the totality of what it represents; like the relationship between figure and thing figured discussed in the first part of this chapter, it is always part of that totality. Allegory, on the other hand, is a sign that refers to a specific meaning from which it continually remains detached. Through its abstract embodiment, the allegorical form makes the distance between itself and its original meaning clearly manifest. It accentuates the absolute cleavage between subject and object. Since the speaker in "Because I could not stop for Death" balances between the boast of knowledge and the confession of ignorance, between a oneness with death and an inescapable difference from it, we may regard the poem as a partial allegory. The inability to know eternity, the failure to be at one with it, is, we might say, what the allegory of "Because I could not stop for Death" makes manifest. The ride with death, though it espouses to reveal a future that is past, in fact casts both past and future in the indeterminate present of the last stanza. Unable to arrive at a fixed conception, it must rest on the bravado (and it implicitly knows this) of its initial claim. Thus death is not really civilized; the boundary between otherness and self, life and death, is crossed, but only in presumption, and we might regard this fact as the real confession of disappointment in the poem's last stanza.

From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sharon Cameron: On 1072 ("Title divine--is mine!")

My reading of the poem is hypothetical by default, for its syntax alone, not to mention the elliptical progressions and the rapid transformation of pronouns, insists upon respect for its difficulty. What we can ascertain is that the speaker is comparing the life of the heavenly bride to that of the earthly one. The woman exalted in the first half of the poem is royal by virtue of what she does not have. Without the sign or ring legitimating marriage and without the swoon of sexuality, this woman, seemingly self-elected, is dangerously close to Plath's "Lady Lazarus," who will also insist upon "Acute Degree—" and who will carry the claim of suffering one step further into hyperbole than Calvary. This miracle—a woman without the swoon, divine by virtue of its absence—makes us hunger for a more generous world where salvation is not had at the expense of life. It is the other world we think we are getting when we read of "the swoon / God sends us Women— / When you—hold—Garnet to Garnet— /Gold—to Gold—." But the transition is strangely enough no transition; deprivation is here not absent, it is simply of another order. "When you—hold—Garnet to Garnet— /Gold—to Gold—" (in the secular context of the earthly wedding ceremony), what you get is death ("Born—Bridalled—Shrouded— / In a Day—"). The shift in pronouns is a shift to the colloquial "you," almost as if in talking implicitly about sexuality the speaker had to cast attribution as far from herself as possible. But in the very process of distinguishing herself from the wealth of the earthly alternative, she temporarily allies herself with it, with the swoon "God sends us Women—." In the fusion and confusion of these lines, both options funnel to death, the contraction of the self into its own ashes. For the birth of the wife becomes the death of the woman. Upon such sacrifices, the gods themselves throw incense. The problem is that both alternatives require sacrifice.

Between the nothing that is the self and the nothing to which the self gets reduced when it capitulates to another, we see our options clearly. While it is true that the jewels in the poem suggest the blessing of the earthly wife, the lines, coming as they do in the middle of the poem ( as a manifestation of its transition from divine to earthly), are a half-implied metaphor for the necessary complement of divine and earthly wife, for each by herself is inadequate. Thus although the lines tell us that garnet is held to garnet and gold to gold ( each alternative able to assess only itself), the proximity of the lines requires us to see the colors (and the choices they represent) held against each other, as if the speaker's vision of impossibility momentarily enabled its transcendence.

"Stroking the Melody—" is perhaps a metaphor for the very impossibilities delimited by the poem. For the need to get a hold on sound, to imbue it with physical dimensions, reminds us that we have a metaphoric world to console us for the impoverishment of the physical world. Like Lear's desire to "sweeten the imagination" or to wipe the hand "of mortality," Dickinson's phrase suggests that simultaneous perception of loss and compensation that grips the mind at such moments of imaginative invention, as, in the process of calling wishes into being, the speaker inevitably acknowledges their status as wishes, not subject to fulfillment in reality. If only one could "sweeten the imagination" or "Strok[e] the Melody." So utterance grows out of desperation and registers violence at its fact.

Yet options exist because we must take them. We cannot, as Sartre pointed out, not choose. This recognition is the moment the poem records. For the speaker, from the vantage of Calvary, looks enviously at the earthly alternative and finds that it is nothing. Previously she thought she could imitate ill name, if nothing else, the title of the earthly wife. Now it is apparent that the imitation is purposeless. She could not have it if she wanted it, and if she had it, she sees now that she would not want it. Her title, then, like the earthly wife's, is empty, the "Melody—" sought after but finally strained once it is acknowledged that any possession is by itself inadequate.

The problem of otherness perceived as death; the problem of otherness for lack of which there is death: the alternatives in these poems are stark ones. Yet the poems themselves are not stark, are, in fact, loaded with energy that is, as I have been suggesting, close to explosive. And it is the energy that needs accounting for, fed as it is by the fuel of sexuality on the one hand, and death on the other, by that combustible that ignites into rage. In the poems presence seems manifested as rage and, in particular, as rage at all that is temporal, all that has a history whose requirement is sacrifice and choice.

From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.

Sharon Cameron: On 341 ("After great pain, a formal feeling comes--")

"Great pain" is the predicate on which the sentence of fixity lies, the prior experience against which feeling hardens in intransigent difference. The relationship between the adjective in "formal feeling," the adverb in "The Nerves sit ceremonious," and the simile, "like Tombs—" is a relationship of progressive clarity; the connections get made in the underground touching of the roots of each of these words; the "formal feeling," "ceremonious," is a feeling of death. And as if in parody of the initial image, in the next line the "Heart" too is a "stiff," unable to connect self to incident or to date.

Like the "Element of Blank—," like the "Trance—" that covers pain, and like the "nearness to Tremendousness— / An Agony procures—," the "formal feeling" is an abdication of presence, a fact that explains why the question the speaker puts to herself is framed by incredulity and designates the subject as someone else, a "He, that bore," why the time that precedes the present becomes mere undifferentiated space, "Yesterday, or Centuries before?" But unlike "Blank—," "Trance—," and "a nearness to Tremendousness—," the "formal feeling" is an anatomy of pain's aftermath from a distance, a self standing outside of the otherness that possesses it. Thus we are told of the parts of the body as if they were someone else's or no one's: "The Heart . . . the Nerves . . . the Feet . . . "; thus we are shown actions, how the body looks, what it does, rather than feelings. Thus the speaker arrives at a definition ("This is the Hour of Lead—") divorced from the experience because encompassing it. Thus the concluding simile departs from the present as if in analogy there were some further, final escape.

But although the initial images follow upon each other like a death, the second stanza makes clear that death is only an analogy for the body that has lost its spirit, for the vacancy of will. Given its absence, all action is repetition of movement without meaning, and as if to emphasize the attendant vacuousness, the lines repeat each other: "The Feet" "go round—" in circles, "Wooden," "Regardless grown," until the stanza's final line boldly flaunts its own redundancy. "A Quartz contentment " is "like a stone—" because quartz is a stone. However, perhaps Dickinson means us to see two images here, the transparent crystal and the grey stone to which it clouds, in a synesthesia that would equate the darkening of color with a formal hardening. As in "perfect—paralyzing Bliss— / Contented as Despair—," contentment here is the ultimate quiet, the stasis that resembles death. "Wood," "stone," "Lead—"—the images to this point have been ones of progressive hardening. The image with which the poem concludes, however, is more complex because of its susceptibility to transformation, its capacity to exist as ice, snow, and finally as the melting that reduces these crystals to water. The poem's last line is an undoing of the spell of stasis. Because it is not another, different expression of hardness but implies a definite progression away from it by retracing the steps that comprise its history, we know that the "letting go—" is not a letting go of life, is not death, but is rather the more colloquial "letting go" of feeling, an unleashing of the ability to experience it again. To connect the stages of the analogy to the stages of the poem: "Chill—" precedes the poem, "Stupor—" preoccupies it, and "the letting go—" exists on the far side of its ending. The process whereby blankness has been called into existence, given palpable form, dimension, character and movement enables the poem to specify what the previous poems on pain merely note. Dickinson's poems mostly take place "After great pain," in the space between "Chill—" and "Stupor—." "Life [is] so very sweet at the Crisp," she wrote longingly, "what must it be unfrozen! " (L 472). But the conversion of the body into stone was not lasting. She was not, as she sometimes seemed to declare herself, numb from the neck down. Pain was the shot that inflicted temporary paralysis, a remedy that worked until the poems took over. Then she could spell out the words she swore consciousness refused her, "letting [the feeling] go—" into them where from a distance she could look.

We saw earlier how, in Derrida’s terms, pain is a trace of lost presence, the record of its having been. Thus Dickinson's speakers "learn the Transport by the Pain—," sometimes seeming to harbor the belief that "Pain-" is "the Transport" it stands for. Pain is with us as a presence because pain stands for (in place of) presence. But pain, as we have seen in the last few pages, is also the past after which, from which, comes the "formal feeling" that is the poem. If we were to arrange the three terms in a sequence (present/ce, pain, and poem) they would, each one, hark back to a past that eluded all efforts to retain it. For the first temporal principle is one of alterity, the present differing from the past and the future from the present. We then have some idea of why Dickinson claimed in her meeting with Higginson not to have learned how to tell time until she was fifteen. For to tell time is to tell difference, to note the failure of resemblance ever to be the same as that from which it differs. Dickinson’s poems on pain are an attempt to blank time out and to create, in its place, a space where the temporal apparatus of daily life has been as if disconnected. For presence is past, and even what follows presence (what Poulet calls the moment after loss) lies behind us. In the sequence of diminishing returns, what has been is, by definition, missing. What remains is a true blank, the genuine space at the thought of which despair "raves—," and around which words gather in the mourning that is language.

From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.

Sharon Cameron: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain") (2)

I have written elsewhere of this poem that it represents the making of a though unconscious (LT, pp. 96-98). The poem cannot represent a literal funeral, since people do not feel funerals, they attend them. They also do not feel funerals in the brain. Moreover, here the funeral seems to precede the death as well as the burial of the thing which is ceremonially presided over. Since what is in the brain that can be buried is a thought, the poem, I have argued, represents ambivalence about making a thought unconscious. Ambivalence is epitomized by the mourners, who could be understood to lament the burial of the thought, although, ultimately, in sitting for the ceremony, they also come to consent to it. Ambivalence is definitely underscored by the second of the variants and the variant grammar it gives the poem's final line (fig. 10, second manuscript page of "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain"). For that variant, written below and to the right of the word on the line, makes it unclear whether knowing is finished (there being no longer any knowing, but only unconsciousness), or whether what is "Got through—" is the experience of unconsciousness, which leaves "knowing" in its wake. In the second way of reading the poem's last line, according not only to its variant but also to its variant grammar, knowing is what begins at the poem's end, rather than what concludes. Finally, a third way of reading the variants is to see them in relation: that is, they precisely dramatize the conflict registered throughout the poem, and, as I have tried to illustrate, throughout the earlier poems in the fascicle. As noted, this conflict is registered in miniature by the alternative words—and the alternative punctuation of the same words, as exemplified by the possibly implicit but absent comma of "Finished[,] knowing—then—" and the absent comma of "Finished knowing—then—." Thus the implicit double grammar, raised both by the variant and by a closer scrutiny of the line itself, equivocates whether knowing is finished, or whether it survives when the experience recorded by the poem is finished.

A related ambiguity is reiterated in the poem's fourth line, where "Sense . . . breaking through—" connotes that sense is either "breaking down" or, idiomatically, "emerging." In the first understanding, sense's breaking through consciousness means the speaker's breaking down because sense falls out or away once it breaks through (not because the verb "breaking" itself necessarily means "collapsing"). And a similar ambiguity is reiterated in the peculiar formulation of the second to last stanza: "I, and Silence, some strange Race." The line raises the question of whether the status of personhood is being conferred upon silence or of whether the speaker, by allying herself with something non-human, inanimate, not even palpable, is herself ceding that status. For the speaker seems to personify silence and identify herself with it. If the conjunction is so construed, she and silence might have equal status, might even be considered to form a "Race." Alternatively, since silence doesn't have the status of a person, the speaker's identification could be regarded as working to cancel the speaker's own personhood. In the second way of reading the line, despite the attempt to personify silence, the speaker rather depersonalizes the self to the point of obliteration. Or, finally, like the other two lines that must be read in contradictory ways, this one invites not a double reading but, more specifically, two readings that contend with each other, enacting at the level of the individual line the conflict registered in the poem and, more generally, in the fascicle as a whole.

From Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Chicago.

Sharon Cameron: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

We may speculate that the poem charts the stages in the speaker's loss of consciousness, and this loss of consciousness is a dramatization of the deadening forces that today would be known as repression. We may further suppose that the speaker is reconstructing—or currently knowing—an experience whose pain in the past rendered it impossible to know. We note that part of the strangeness of her speech lies in the fact that not only is the poem grammatically past tense, but it also seems emotionally past tense. It illustrates the way in which one can relate experience and, at the same time, suffer a disassociation from it. Of course in this case the experience itself is one of disassociation. Since the speaker adds no emotive comment to the recollection, it is as if even in the recounting the words did not penetrate the walls of her own understanding. That the poem is about knowledge and the consequence of its repression is clear enough from the poem's initial conceit, for people do not feel funerals and certainly not in the brain. In addition, as a consequence of the persistent downward motion of the poem, we see that the funeral is rendered in terms of a burial, and this fusion or confusion points to a parallel confusion between unconsciousness and death. The burial of something in the mind—of a thought or experience or wish—the rendering of it unconscious, lacks an etiology; its occasion and even content here remain unspecified. As a consequence our attention is fixed on the process itself.

Examining the conceit, we can speculate that the mourners represent that part of the self which fights to resurrect or keep alive the thought the speaker is trying to commit to burial. They stand for that part of the self which feels conflict about the repressive gesture. "Treading—treading—," the self in conflict goes over the same ground of its argument with itself, and sense threatens to dissolve, "break through—," because of the mind's inability to resolve its contradictory impulses. In the second stanza, on a literal level the participants of the funeral sit for the service and read words over the dead. On a figural level the confusion of the mind quiets to one unanimous voice issuing its consent to the burial of meaning. But the mind's unanimity, its single voice, is no less horrible. The speaker hears it as a drum: rhythmic, repetitious, numbing. In the fourth stanza, the repressive force lashes the speaker with retaliatory distortion: the "Heavens" and the cosmos they represent toll as one overwhelming "Bell"; "Being" is reduced to the "Ear" that must receive it. No longer fighting the repressive instinct (for the "Mourners" have disappeared, "Being" and "I" are united), the self is a victim passively awaiting its own annihilation. When the "Plank in Reason," the last stronghold to resist its own dissolution, gives, and the speaker plummets through successive levels of meaning (an acknowledgment that repression has degrees), the result is a death of consciousness. As J. V. Cunningham remarks, the poem is a representation of a "psychotic episode" at the end of which the speaker passes out.

But if we agree that the poem is not about actual death, why is the funeral rendered in such literal terms, terms that might well lead a careless reader to mistake its very subject? Paul de Man, distinguishing between irony and allegory, provides a suggestive answer. Allegory, he writes, involves "the tendency of the language toward narrative, the spreading out along the axis of an imaginary time in order to give duration to what is, in fact, simultaneous within the subject." The structure of irony is the reverse of this form—the reduction of time to one single moment in which the self appears double or disjoint. Irony, de Man writes, is "staccato . . . a synchronic structure, while allegory appears as a successive mode capable of engendering duration as the illusion of a continuity that it knows to be illusory." Irony and allegory, he concludes, are two faces of the same experience, opposite ways of rendering sequence and doubleness. De Man's distinctions are illuminating for our understanding of the fusions in "I felt a Funeral in my Brain," for the poem exhibits a double sense of its own experience and of the form in which that experience is to be rendered. With no terms of its own, it is through its very disembodiment, its self-reflexive disassociation, that the experience wields the power it does. If it could be made palpable and objectified, it might be known and hence mastered. Thus the allegory of the funeral attempts to exteriorize and give a temporal structure to what is in fact interior and simultaneous. Because we see the stages of the funeral (stages that correspond to steps that will complete the repressive instinct) we cannot help but view repression in terms of death. Thus the funeral imagery, replete with mourners, coffin, and service, seems both to distract from the poem's subject of repression and to insist on the severity of its consequences. But it is in the tension between the two modes of knowing and of representation, between an allegorical structure and an ironic one, that the poem's interest lies. For structure and sequence fall away in the ironic judgment of the poem’s last line, which suggests, if implicitly, that action (exteriority) and knowledge (interiority) will always diverge. Even the attempt to reconstruct the experience and do it over with a different consequence leads, as it did the first time, to blankness. This divergence is further exemplified in the odd order of the poem's events: the funeral precedes death, at least the death of consciousness. Such inversion of normal sequence necessitates a figural reading of the poem and makes perfect sense within it, for Dickinson seems to be claiming we cannot "not know" in isolation and at will. What we choose not to know, what we submerge, like the buried root of a plant that sucks all water and life toward its source, pulls us down with a vengeance toward it.

From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.

Sharon Cameron: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--")

We must imagine the speaker looking back on an experience in which her expectations of death were foiled by its reality. The poem begins with the speaker's perception of the fly, not yet a central awareness both because of the way in which the fly manifests itself (as sound) and because of the degree to which it manifests itself (as a triviality). As a consequence of the speaker's belief in the magnitude of the event and the propriety with which it should be enacted, the fly seems merely indecorous, as yet a marginal disturbance, attracting her attention the way in which something we have not yet invested with meaning does. In a poem very much concerned with the question of vision, it is perhaps strange that the dominant concern in stanza one should be auditory. But upon reflection it makes sense, for the speaker is hearing a droning in the background before the source of the noise comes into view. The poem describes the way in which things come into view, slowly.

What is striking in the second stanza is the speaker's lack of involvement in the little drama that is being played out. She is acutely conscious that there will be a struggle with death, but she imagines it is the people around her who will undergo it. Her detachment and tranquility seem appropriate if we imagine them to come in the aftermath of pain, a subject that is absent in the poem and whose absence helps to place the experience at the moment before death. At such a moment, the speaker's concern is focused on others, for being the center of attention with all eyes upon her, she is at leisure to return the stare. Her concern with her audience continues in the third stanza and prompts the tone of officiousness there. Wanting to set things straight, the speaker wishes to add the finishing touches to her life, to conclude it the way one would a business deal. The desire to structure and control experience is not, however, carried out in total blindness, for she is clearly cognizant of those "Keep-sakes—" not hers to give. Even at this point her conception of dying may be a preconception but it is not one founded on total ignorance.

The speaker has been imagining herself as a queen about to leave her people, conscious of the majesty of the occasion, presiding over it. She expects to witness death as majestic, too, or so one infers from the way in which she speaks of him in stanza two. The staginess of the conception, however, has little to do with what Charles Anderson calls "an ironic reversal of the conventional attitudes of [Dickinson's] time and place toward the significance of the moment of death." If it did, the poem would arbitrate between the social meanings and personal ones. But the conflict between preconception and perception takes place inside. Or rather preconception gives way only to darkness. For at the conclusion of the third stanza the fly "interpose[s]," coming between the speaker and the onlookers, between her predictive fantasy of the event and its reality, between life and death. The fact that the fly obscures the former allows the speaker to see the latter. Perspective suddenly shifts to the right thing: from the ritual of dying to the fact of death. It is, of course, the fly who obliterates the speaker's false notions of death, for it is with his coming that she realizes that she is the witness and he the king, that the ceremony is a "stumbling" one. It is from a perspective schooled by the fly that she writes.

As several previous discussions of the poem have acknowledged, the final stanza begins with a complicated synesthesia: "With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—." The adjective "stumbling" (used customarily to describe only an action) here also describes a sound, and the adverb "uncertain" the quality of that sound. The fusion would not be so interesting if its effect were not to evoke that moment in perception when it is about to fail. As in a high fever, noises are amplified, the light in the room takes on strange hues, one effect seems indistinguishable from another. Although there is a more naturalistic explanation for the word "stumbling" (to describe the way in which flies go in and out of our hearing), the poem is so predicated on the phenomenon of displacement and projection (of the speaker's feelings onto the onlookers, of the final blindness onto the "Windows," of the fact of perception onto the experience of death) that the image here suggests another dramatic displacement—the fusion of the fly's death with her own. Thus flies when they are about to die move as if poisoned, sometimes hurl themselves against a ceiling, pause, then rise to circle again, then drop. At this moment the changes the speaker is undergoing are fused with their agent: her experience becomes one with the fly's. It is her observance of that fly, being mesmerized by it (in a quite literal sense now, since death is quite literal), that causes her mind to fumble at the world and lose grip of it. The final two lines "And then the Windows failed—and then / I could not see to see—" are brilliant in their underlining of the poem's central premise; namely that death is survived by perception, for in these lines we are told that there are two senses of vision, one of which remains to see and document the speaker's own blindness ("and then / I could not see to see—"). The poem thus penetrates to the invisible imagination which strengthens in response to the loss of visible sight.

I mentioned earlier that the poem presumes a shift of perspective, an enlightened change from the preconception of death to its perception. In order to assume that the speaker is educated by her experience, we must assume the fact of it: we must credit the death as a real one. But the fiction required by the poem renders it logically baffling. For although the poem seems to proceed in a linear fashion toward an end, its entire premise is based on the lack of finality of that end, the speaker who survives death to tell her story of it. We are hence left wondering: How does the poem imagine an ending? If it does not, what replaces a sense of an ending? How does it conceive of the relationship between past, present, and future? To address these questions adequately, we need to look at some theories of time against which the poem's own singular conception may more sharply be visible. 

From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.

Sharon Cameron: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light") (2)

. . . in "There's a certain Slant of light" the human world is everywhere apparent, as finitude is everywhere apparent. The consequence is oppression. The human world manifests itself in the experience of division, the division of the heavenly from the earthly as well as of the internal from the external. It further manifests itself in the production of "Meanings," and in the concern with how meanings are produced. And as division itself might be regarded as a master trope of the human world, division is no less apparent in the indirectly voiced desire to make meaning visible—to externalize meaning where it is imagined meaning could have form that might be recognized, apprehended, even possessed, as objects are apprehended and possessed. Finally, the human world is apparent in the serial manifestations of indirection, of affliction, of personification, of death. In these various ways, the poem is saturated with finitude, as the preceding poem was purified of it.

The personification of the landscape is an alternative, as it were, to the naturalization of the self. And such an inversion of the previous poem, this rejection of its terms, is apparent in the fact that light waves become sound waves, which become waves of heaviness and pain. Thus everything is personalized, translated to the person, and then confined or trapped there, as in the previous poem liberation from personhood was precisely what was celebrated. Yet whatever invades the speaker is also perceived as alien to her even as it is seen to penetrate her. So the indifference—the "sovreign" "Unconcern" of the previous poem-becomes the "internal difference" of this one. In fact, light is cast down and codified as the "Seal Despair," which itself hardens further into "the look of Death." One way to understand such causality is to say that the light, internalized, registers as despair and is understood as death. Another way to understand it is to see that this figure in the poem—this making of death into a figure that cannot be dispelled—is what death looks like when it is personified, when it is made to have a meaning as small as a person's meaning. In line with the trivialization, "the look of Death" does not quite displace the anthropomorphic "face" of death (as in the previous poem "Competeless" does not quite displace "completeless"). For death in "There's a certain Slant of light," reduced to human size, is almost given a countenance. Thus "the Distance" from death or from the "look of Death" (from how death appears when it has a "look," almost a demeanor or expression) is no distance at all.

I have noted that something is being worked out in the two poems about an ability to adopt nature's indifference to the self (with the consequence of immortalizing the self) and an inability to adopt that indifference which results in death's personification. But what shall we further say about the proximity of these poems? Is one a repudiation of the other? Does the second more neutrally correspond to the other as an opposite point of view? And how can these poems so closely identified be read as anything but retorts to each other? Or would it be more accurate to say that they are in effect two parts of the same poem? For as distance is experienced in the first of the poems, distance and hence immortality, distance is denied in the second of the poems. Hence death is regarded. In the context of the whole fascicle, the poems reiterate in various ways the questions: Can loss be naturalized or always only personalized? How is the recompense for loss to be conceived? From the vantage of "Of Bronze—and Blaze—," there is no recompense and no necessity for recompense, nothing—or nothing worthwhile—being understood to be lost. From the vantage of "There's a certain Slant of light," everything is determined to be lost, as anticipation or anxiety determines it, even as what exactly is feared lost is unspecified, and impossible to specify. It is impossible to specify since there is no distance on the experience as well as no specified distance on the look of death. Thus in some crucial way, clarified only by the fascicle context, the poems in proximity illuminate distance, making distance the subject—as it is achieved by the speaker in one poem, as it fails to be achieved by the speaker in another—a subject that can only be seen to unfold across the space of two poems no longer understood as discrete. For the poems represent different understandings of what distance is—when it is achieved and when it fails to be achieved—making everything that follows (the experience of loss, the anticipation of death, internality itself) functionally, and therefore radically, subordinate to this subject which it is the task of the poems in conjunction to redefine. Such a redefinition is no small accomplishment, for it transforms the poems taken singly—as Romantic "insight" poems—into representations that probe the conditions and consequences of perception, giving conditions and consequences governance over all. Then perception itself and the celebrated "internality" of "There's a certain Slant of light" are only a consequence of a certain way of seeing, of a certain vantage, that can in fact be regulated and that, when regulated, (savingly) dehumanizes. With reference to such regulation, the mechanistic rhetoric of the fascicle's last poem (P 292), "If your Nerve, deny you— / Go above your Nerve . . . Lift the Flesh door—," can no longer be seen as enigmatically self-annihilating. For, like "Of Bronze—and Blaze—," it proposes an escape from the mortal position seen in both cases to be a diminutive position to which there is a real alternative. So a rereading of two poems in proximity within the fascicle, poems no longer quite discrete, requires a rereading of all the poems in the fascicle and of the fascicle as a whole.

From Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Chicago.

Sharon Cameron: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

How does "light" come into relation with "Despair—" and "Despair—" into relation with "Death—"? What are the generative fusions of the poem and why is the grammar of its concluding lines itself so confusing? We note that light is a "Seal" or sign of despair and we remember that Dickinson was much too conscientious a reader of the Bible and particularly of the Book of Revelation not to have intended "the Seal Despair—" to point to an experience that was, if a secular experience can be so, both visionary and apocalyptic. In the Bible, however, while the self is "not worthy to open the scroll and break the seals" that will reveal divine agency, in the speaker's world meaning must be deduced within the privacy of a solitary consciousness. Thus "None may teach it [to] any [one else]"; "None may teach it any [thing]" (it is not subject to alteration); "None may teach it—[not] any [one]." But the "Meanings" of the event are not self-generated; if this is a poem about the solipsistic labor of experience, it is not about autism. To be credited as vision, despair must also seek its connection to the generative source outside itself. For light may seal despair in, make it internal and irrevocable, but the irrevocability, by a line of association that runs just under the poem's surface, prompts the larger thought of death.

In fact, the poem is about correlatives, about how interior transformations that are both invisible and immune to alteration from the outside world are at the same time generated by that world. The relationship between the "Slant of light" in the landscape and the "Seal Despair—" within may be clarified by an analogy to Erich Auerbach's distinction between figure and its fulfillment, for the "Slant of light" and the "Seal Despair—" are not in this poem merely premonitions of death, but are, in fact, kinds or types of death. Indeed it could be asserted that in the entire Dickinson canon, despair is often a figura for death, not as Auerbach uses the word to specify related historical events, but rather as he indicates the word to denote an event that prefigures an ultimate occurrence and at the same time is already imbued with its essence. Figural interpretation presupposes much greater equality between its terms than either allegory or symbol for, in the former, the sign is a mere form and, in the latter, the symbol is always fused with what it represents and can actually replace it. While it is true that figural interpretation ordinarily applies to historical events rather than to natural events, and while the "Slant of light" and the "Seal Despair—" are indeed natural and psychological events not separated by much time, they have a causal or prefigurative relationship to each other that is closer to the relationship implicit in the figural structure than to that in the symbolic one. Certainly it would be incorrect to say that they are symbols. "Light" and "Seal," however, are in relation to "Death—" as a premise is to a conclusion. Auerbach, speaking of the relationship between two historical events implicit in the figural structure, writes, "Both . . . have something provisional and incomplete about them; they point to one another and both point to something in the future, something still to come, which will be the actual, real, and definitive event." We may regard the "Slant of light" and the "Seal Despair—" as having just such a signatory relationship as that described above. For the light is indirect; it thus seeks a counterpart to help it deepen into meaning. The "definitive event" in the poem to which "light" and "Seal" point is, of course, "Death—." While we would expect the departure of the light to yield distance from the "look of Death—," instead the preposition "on" not only designates the space between the speaker and the light but also identifies that light as one cast by death, and in turn casting death on, or in the direction of, the speaker. The "Slant of light," recognized only at a distance—its meaning comprehended at the moment of its disappearance—is revelatory of "Death—", is "Death['s]—" prefiguration. Figure fuses with fact, interprets it, and what we initially called the confusion of the two now makes sense in the context of divination.

If the light is indeed one of death, then we have the answer to why and how it "oppresses" in the first stanza and to the earlier oblique comparison of it to "Cathedral Tunes—." What Dickinson achieves in the poem is truly remarkable, for she takes a traditional symbol and scours it so thoroughly of its traditional associations with life that before we get to the poem's conclusion the image leans in the direction of mystery, dread, and darkness. By the time we arrive at the final simile and at the direct association of light and death we are not so much surprised as relieved at the explicitness of the revelation. It is the indirect association of "light" and "Death—" (the "Slant" that pulls them together at first seemingly without purpose) that prompts "Despair—." We feel it indirectly, internally, obliquely. Were we to know it, it would be death. For Dickinson, death is the apocalyptic vision, the straightening of premonition into fact, figure into fulfillment.

The fusions I have been discussing either between literal reality and its metaphoric representation (where literal reality permanently assumes those metaphoric characteristics that seemed initially intended only to illuminate it) or between the more formal figura and its fulfillment (where events contain in a predictive relationship the essence as well as the form of each other) raise the question of whether we can ever know anything in its own terms, and suggest perhaps that knowledge is not, as we might have thought, absolute, but is rather always relational. If these fusions link the historical or natural world with the divine one, the analogue with the real thing, they are predicated on a structure of simultaneous correspondence rather than of linear progression. The truth that is "Bald, and Cold—" is death, it does not lead to it. The "certain Slant of light," although it prefigures death, also already contains its essence. The thing in other words is saturated in the terms of its own figuration. Given the synchrony of this relationship, we are not very far from those poems that strain to annihilate the boundaries of time itself and to treat death as if its very reality could be cast into the present tense, experienced, and somehow survived. The effort to know what cannot be known, to survive it, is thus carried one step further in those poems in which the speaker travels over the boundary from life to death to meet death on its own ground. Given the presumption of the quest, figural structure often gives way to allegory or at any rate to the acknowledgment of the inadequacy of simple analogue, for on the other side of death true knowledge can find no correspondences.

From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.