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.

1 Comment

  1. #924 is a challenge, so brutally abstract, so demanding of the reader, but solvable if one proceeds in an appropriately analytical manner. What you’re missing is that “Love” is the hero of the poem, and is the implied subject of lines 3,4,5,7,8, and 9. “Life” is one you seem to be referring to as the ‘beloved’ in the poem. Failing to see that they are one and the same unnecessarily complicates your reading. “Love” is the womb in which “Life” appears, defeats death, and allows life to continue its existence in the realm of “God”. But because it is possible that God may be incapable of giving life what it needs, Love stays, in an incomprehensible display of loyalty and faithfulness “for an eternity” just in case there “if once in an eternity,” Life might need Love. One must appreciate the implication of the contrasts here. Love is a Superfriend, and can act as such because for every life there is a Love womb. In the orthodox Christian context in which the poem was written, the poem is plainly blasphemous, first in distinguishing Love from God (violating John 4:16), then in contrasting the perpetual motion of love with the static “God,” which Dickinson presents as a realm that offers safety but little else. As a character, God is as flat as the abstract space he occupies. Finally the poem contributes to the motif running throughout Dickinson’s work of glorifying all things small.

    No offense but your commentary on the poem is convoluted and does not ask the right questions. My visual interpretation presented in the form of stop-motion animation is available on request. My full lecture on the poem and the inquiries through which I arrived at my interpretation is also available.

    C

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