Emily Dickinson, “Love – is that later thing than Death” (924)

Love – is that later thing than Death (924)
Emily Dickinson

Love – is that later Thing than Death –
More previous – than Life –
Confirms it at its entrance – And
Usurps it – of itself –

Tastes Death – the first – to hand the sting
The Second – to its friend –
Disarms the little interval –
Deposits Him with God –

Then hovers – an inferior Guard –
Lest this Beloved Charge
Need – once in an Eternity –
A smaller than the Large –

Comment:

The first stanza seems clear enough, at first. Love being “later” than Death and “more previous” than Life makes Life “the little interval” of the second stanza; Love seems not to be the interval because it surrounds the sequence of Life/Death. Of course, there is another sense where Love is a sequence. Love is generated from a lover to a beloved. In that sense, it creates (“more previous”) even if (or especially if) love should never be returned. Hence, “later Thing than Death:” the perpetually outstanding issue, what love is, when love is. “Confirms it at its entrance:” does Love confirm Life, or merely itself? “Usurps it – of itself:” that Love usurps Life we definitely are seeing now. But “of itself?” Does Life acquiesce, or even demand Love take over?

Let’s remove “Life.” “[Love] Tastes Death,” which first hands a sting. “The Second” is merely the next step in a sequence that may be ongoing. Unlike Death, no end is explicitly given (“Disarms the little interval”). Perhaps the friend, the Beloved, is “with God” – no, not yet, that’s a potential misreading. The friend of Death is Love. The lover is loving because of mortality; the Beloved is with God because of wishful thinking (“disarms” implies death is meaningless; “deposits” sounds earthly but is applied to the heavenly).

The unreality of Love has to catch up with the lover. From a sequence moving sideways, an ascent has been attempted, but only attempted. “An inferior Guard” hovers, between lover and beloved, because of where the Beloved has been deposited. The Beloved can ask for something more concrete from the lover, and perhaps the Guard, being inferior will allow it. But the lover has given “Large,” partly because getting more specific than “later Thing” was a problem. What makes love actual, and even beneficial to the lover, starts at this point, “once in an Eternity.” The Guard can be inflexible and ignore the Beloved’s needs, including the need to be “let go.” Or the Guard can be willingly inferior in the best sense.

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