Emily Dickinson, “To die — without the Dying” (1017)

With thanks to Thomas Lowery

To die — without the Dying (1017)
Emily Dickinson

To die — without the Dying
And live — without the Life
This is the hardest Miracle
Propounded to Belief.


What is “the hardest miracle propounded to belief?” What does one who wants to believe find most difficult to accept? Apparently the answer is the first two lines:

To die — without the Dying
And live — without the Life

Yeah, I have no idea. I guess we should start with the obvious: Is “To die — without the Dying” the same thing as “live — without the Life?” The third line says simply “this is the hardest Miracle.” That implies these two are united in some way. Either one is the same thing as the other, or this is a compound miracle.

Literally, the first line is not the same thing as the second. They are strictly parallel except for “Dying” and “Life” (“to”/”and” is trivial: one can fill in “to” before “live”). “Dying” should be “death,” but instead it is a participle, an action. How does one die without actually dying? The only way this is possible, I think, is if one thinks one knows one will live forever.  One has to die and not feel it is dying at all. This seems to be the work of pursuing immortality of one’s name, perhaps everlasting fame. Achilles wants to die for glory early on in the Iliad.

“Live – without the Life” complements the pursuit of immortality: one is only living for an afterlife. On that note, one might say religion is being critiqued here. I think one aspect is being examined. It is true the general category of “nobility” encompasses “religion” to a degree: the seeking of a worthy name is not earthly fame, but a place in the mind of God. But when we talk about the question of justice, where acting justly may be an integral part of religious concern and not only about establishing one’s name in any way, something strange happens with “nobility.” What is just can technically be placed under what is noble, but one doesn’t simply stand for something, as one has to think of others and address them properly. There’s even self-knowledge at play – why does one want to be just – that is at least coeval with one’s establishing an identity.  All of this matters more than assumed obligation or grand deeds or one’s name or any particular good to be had. Nobility, we can see, starts breaking down as the focus centers on the individual. Religion, inasmuch it is personal, is not the target of the poem.

No, “Live – without the Life” is about our failure to live when we want things on a grand scale. The grand scale matters for a number of things, including smaller ones, to be sure. But sometimes we’re working hard to believe and want to comprehend miracles, of all things. We don’t even realize we’re not living life and that perhaps even death has lost its sting. Maybe that is a miracle, and if so, it is amazing. The hardest miracle can be achieved, it seems. Dickinson is slyly pointing at another more personal, individual belief. No one said fearing death was the worst thing.

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