Emily Dickinson, “Each Second is the last” (879)

“Each Second is the last…” (879)
Emily Dickinson

Each Second is the last
Perhaps, recalls the Man
Just measuring unconsciousness
The Sea and Spar between.

To fail within a Chance –
How terribler a thing
Than perish from the Chance’s list
Before the Perishing!


“Each Second is the last” should be in quotes, for it is spoken to oneself. But something is dubious about the proposition in merely articulating it: it was recalled after a second had passed. Right away, we have a tension. Is man “the measure of all things,” “just measuring unconsciousness?” Or does “Each Second is the last” measure? It certainly is unconscious itself, not just because it is stated, but because it joined “Sea” and “Spar” in fear. The sails are only alluded to; one gets the impression a boat is only for protection against turbulence. One can say Man joins Sea and Spar differently, as he may actually want to travel. It is significant “Sea” and “Spar” are between two points themselves.

With that in mind, it may not be possible to read too much into “Just measuring unconsciousness.” Still, the immediate problem stems from Man articulating propositions that are literally a measure of unconsciousness. Is it really possible to live well thinking “Each Second is the last” all the time? It is as if one has already failed “within a Chance.” “Chance’s list” implies that one has conceded the ability to articulate to “Chance” rather than accept one’s own agency. To perish from “Chance’s list” may be the second most horrible thing, as we are never given a full chance to be human. Worse is to deny being human while being given that chance.

1 Comment

  1. I really enjoy your thoughts on Emily Dickinson. I feel that you are celebrating her work. I was introduced to her work when I was 15 and my all time favorite is:

    “Success is counted sweetest
    By those who ne’er succeed.
    To comprehend a nectar
    Requires sorest need.

    Not one of all the purple host
    Who took the flag to-day
    Can tell the definition,
    So clear, of victory!

    As he, defeated, dying,
    On whose forbidden ear
    The distant strains of triumph
    Burst agonized and clear!”

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