Emily Dickinson’s Drift Between a Living Hell and Hellish Heaven

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Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson

“Behind Me—dips Eternity—

Before Me—Immortality,

Myself the Term between—”

Emily Dickinson is known for her rumination on the anxiety surrounding death, and particularly the pain that accompanies mourning. But her poetry demonstrates a comparable mistrust of eternal life, rendering the notion of a paradisiacal afterlife as emotionally fraught as the idea of oblivion. She tells Eden to “come slowly” lest a bee get lost in the nectar of a flower. She reasons that in heaven (significantly left uncapitalized), “somehow, it will be even— / some new Equation, given— / But, what of that?” And most tellingly, in the poem beginning “I never felt at Home—Below,” she admits she’ll never feel at home in Paradise because “it’s Sunday—all the time / And recess—never comes.”

But the first line of the latter poem demonstrates that the alternative—namely life—doesn’t fare very much better. Despair is a pervasive theme in Dickinson’s verses, as is suffering-induced insanity and psychic pain. In the poem beginning “Pain—expands the Time,” she argues that pain expands infinitesimally short amounts of time into eternities and simultaneously compresses infinite amounts of time into tiny “shot gamuts” of eternity. This leaves the narrator to serve as the foothold between two stretches of eternity that are both constantly in flux, and both equally painful.

So in the poem beginning “Behind Me—dips Eternity—”, the narrator looks ahead and behind her, finding herself adrift between two eternities extending in opposite directions from her consciousness in the present moment. The first three lines (above) culminate in Dickinson’s ubiquitous dash, symbolizing the endless, solipsistic space between “Eternity” and “Immortality.” Then, the subsequent three lines explicate that life and death (and life after death) are not distinct from each other, but are all on a single, nearly indistinguishable gradient.

“Death but the drift of Eastern gray

Dissolving into dawn away

Before the West begins.”

In the second stanza, Dickinson’s narrator expresses mistrust for traditional conceptions of Heaven, characterizing it as a “perfect pauseless monarchy.” Then, the lines “’Tis Miracle before Me—then— / ‘Tis Miracle behind—between—” effectively paint the “Miracle” (meaning either God or the heavenly afterlife as a whole) as oppressive and even sinister, a omnipresent entity that is surrounding and trapping her. The repetition of the word “between” accompanied by the dash, harkening back to the first stanza, emphasizes that the narrator is locked in an interstitial state—between life and death, Heaven and Hell, Eternity and Immortality.

Dickinson’s poetry gives the sense that humanity is being pulled in many different—and equally questionable—directions. Her narrators often express a desire for death in the face of overstimulation (“The heart asks pleasure first / And then excuse from pain… / And then, if it should be… / The liberty to die”), and yet are also suspicious of a purportedly peaceful oblivion. In “I felt a Funeral, in my brain,” for example, the narrator describes the heavens as a loud, cacophonous bell, while she and silence are in “some strange Race.” Then at the end of the poem, the narrator loses every possible world and “finishes knowing,” effectively conveying the terrifying implications of becoming permanently unconscious.

But what’s the alternative? If we can’t desire life, or death, or the afterlife (or lack thereof), perhaps we can aspire to some kind of ideal, since abstract ideals are ever-present in Dickinson’s poetry. But her narrators consistently show irreverence for concepts that traditionally hold sanctity; they question the value of religious faith (particularly of the monotheistic variety), and across multiple poems, they equate the notions of liberty and captivity, in order to illustrate that liberty is an illusion. And, in “I died for Beauty, but was scarce,” she quite literally depicts the death of Truth and Beauty:

“He questioned softly why I failed?

‘For beauty,’ I replied.

‘And I for truth – the two are one;

We brethren are,’ he said.”

The themes that recur throughout Dickinson’s poetry provide context for the narrator’s predicament in “Behind Me—dips Eternity”: a perfect storm in which all roads lead to disillusionment and despair. Her seemingly endless life was filled with false idols and overstimulation, and immortality promises boredom, oppression, or nothingness (or all three). So it’s only fitting that in the final lines of the poem, the narrator is indirectly compared to a sea: turbulent, chaotic, and pulled in arbitrary directions by the indifferent force of the tides.

“A Crescent in the Sea—

With Midnight to the North of Her—

And Midnight to the South of Her—

And Maelstrom—in the Sky—”