On December 11, 2017, I attended a tribute to Emily Dickinson at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Literary critic and poet Sandra Gilbert discussed and recited some of her own poetry as well as ten poems by Dickinson centered on the theme of death and grief.
If you were to present ten of Dickinson’s poems on death and grief, which ten poems would you select?
* The first poem Gilbert read was “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House.” I wrote about it HERE.
* The second and third poems were “How many time these low feet staggered” and “That it will never come again.” I discussed them HERE.
* The fourth and fifth selections were “Two swimmers wrestled on the spar” and “If I may have it, when it’s dead.” I wrote about them HERE.
After reading the first five of ten poems by Dickinson, Gilbert turned to some of her own works focused on death and grief. Her poetry of remembrance of family members and friends was characterized by genuine sorrow framed with humor and vivid images of heartfelt memories. Each poem reflected a generous spirit for those lost to time, and each was a touching tribute of tenderness and power.
To conclude the program, Gilbert read five more of Dickinson’s poems, and with these five she included many of the poet’s “greatest hits”: “I’m going to read some of the poems you knew I had to read,” she said with a reassuring grin.
The first poem of the final five was “that poem of the maiden and her icy suitor,” “Because I could not stop for Death.”
Next came “I felt a Funeral, in my brain”: “Death is madness and madness death as the coffin drops into the grave,” said Gilbert.
Next she read, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”: “She imagines herself dying,” said Gilbert. “It’s an amazing poem of enactment, complete with a death watch.”
Next came – well – I have a confession to make: Next came the final poem by Dickinson selected by Gilbert. Either I missed one (remember, I was typing notes with one frantic finger into my iPhone as I was listening) – or Gilbert only recited nine and not ten of Dickinson’s poems. Oh well. Say, "la vee."
Anyway, the final poem by Dickinson was “Under the light, yet under,” an incredible contemplation of the phenomenon and paradox of death: while “it” (i.e., the deceased) is under the light, the grass and the clover’s root, it is also over the light and the arc of the bird – further than riddle can ride.
The poem is filled with far-fetched but astoundingly imaginative images, and of course, the final two (Further than Guess can gallop / Further than Riddle ride) call to mind the horses in “Because I could not stop for Death” as they galloped toward Eternity, “the Distance / Between Ourselves and the Dead!”
Under the Light, yet under,
Under the Grass and the Dirt,
Under the Beetle's Cellar
Under the Clover's Root,
Further than Arm could stretch
Were it Giant long,
Further than Sunshine could
Were the Day Year long,
Over the Light, yet over,
Over the Arc of the Bird –
Over the Comet's chimney –
Over the Cubit's Head,
Further than Guess can gallop
Further than Riddle ride –
Oh for a Disc to the Distance
Between Ourselves and the Dead!