Special thanks to Heloise Musset for her thoughts, reflected in the comment below.
“Love – is anterior to Life…” (917)
Love – is anterior to Life –
Posterior – to Death –
Initial of Creation, and
The Exponent of Earth –
1. “Anterior” and “posterior” can refer to both place and time. That means, on the one hand, Life can be thought of as a span of time, and Death a moment. It also means we can think of Life as being/becoming and Death as not-being.
2. The temporal reading is very strange: Love is temporally prior to Life? This makes sense if we assume there is a God, and we will need to continue assuming God’s existence in order to make any sense of Love existing beyond Death. But the complications continue: “Initial of Creation?” Love is before the beginning and now also the moment of Creation? Perhaps the first thing created?
To make things almost fatal for an interpretation: “Exponent” can be someone who advocates or interprets. I need not inform you how large a gap there is between those two definitions.
3. If we consider Love to be outside of being and not-being, then what is it? We cannot say for sure it is divine: accidents* can be purely potential. But if Love is an accident, in what does it inhere? It would seem that Love would have to define what is “Initial of Creation” and “the Exponent of Earth,” and that first being in his origination would be an advocate and interpreter of Love.
It is too simple to posit “Man” as the first being. Creation’s end is Man, the only creature in the cosmos who can choose how he moves. Creation properly speaking starts with Light.
4. Human reason more than human nature places Man in the realm of becoming. A perfected human nature that is wholly rational is in the realm of being. But being reasonable is what we aspire to, not what we are always. And our self-awareness is what allows us to see our own nature in the first place, and see the steps we have to take for completion.
Heloise has pointed out how there is an “intense relation” in this poem where love is omnipotent, moving the course of time. I think that sense of totality is what we need to bring this poem’s spatial and temporal readings together. We understand Love as discrete moments, devoid of content, but residing in divinity. We also understand it as an attribute describing what is within Life and what is without. Nowhere is the idea that Love is essential stated.
And that’s Dickinson’s point exactly. A totality can not be substance merely, as Spinoza understood full well. The totality has to be common to all opinions, fundamental to thought. Whether that thought is of Providence, where God rules over Time, or concerns a more sensual notion of being, where Light shining upon bodies allows for one to be an “exponent,” it is clear why this poem is truly as celebratory as its tone. Some things never change, because they aren’t things, strictly speaking.
*I have to look up this “accident”/”essence” thing to make sure I’m using the words correctly. It’s been a long while since I played with this distinction.