Why do you suppose Emily Dickinson would agree to publish the first poem but not the second?Dickinson allowed the poem "The Sleeping" to be printed in the Springfield Republican and sent a second...

Why do you suppose Emily Dickinson would agree to publish the first poem but not the second?

Dickinson allowed the poem "The Sleeping" to be printed in the Springfield Republican and sent a second version, entitled "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers," privately, to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Why do you suppose Emily Dickinson would agree to publish the first poem but not the second?

Asked on by harley08

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Having read both versions of Emily Dickinson's poem "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers," I can only surmise why she might have chosen to print the first in a public forum, while choosing to share the second only privately.

As with poetry which speaks in a different way to each of its readers, based upon their personal collective experiences, my perception will probably not be the only one. However, I have a different reaction to each poem, and perhaps this is why Dickinson chose to share her work as she did.

The first version speaks of death, which many of her poems do. The sense I get is that the dead are protected within the tomb or mausoleum from every part of each passing day. Dickinson lightens the mood by referring to nature, personifying the breeze, I believe. She writes that the breeze is light as it moves above the tombs of those "sleeping." She seems to be comparing the breeze to a bee buzzing in a stolid (uncaring) ear. In other words, those who sleep do not hear the breeze, nor do they hear the song of "Sweet Birds," who ignorant of the dead below, continue to sing.

The mood abruptly shifts again with the last line: what good judgment and sound reasoning was lost with the death of the persons buried there.

While death would not necessarily be a welcome subject, the title "The Sleeping" is comforting, inferring that the situation for those who have died is not a permanent one. The descriptions of nature are also uplifting and bring visions of vigor and life to mind. The last line mourns the passing not only of a person, but all that that person encompassed in knowledge and experience.

However, the second version evokes a totally different reaction from me. The title offers no comfort. The gist of the poem seems to suggest a certain finality. The use of "their" in both poems indicates that the narrator is concerned with the death of those in "their Alabaster Chambers." "Alabaster" denotes cold; marble that is never warm. Life can in no way touch those buried here. Instead of referring to life in nature, the poem seems to talk about an endless march of years passing over the dead, while life goes on. The image of snow is also cold, a sensation associated once again with death.

In this second poem, death is the focus of the poem, but there is no respite from it in the poem. It begins with the cold of marble and ends with the cold of snow. The image of life going on and the greatest and most humble all meeting the same end is a very sobering thought.

Perhaps Dickinson felt that these alterations, which may have more aptly matched her mood at the time she made the changes to the original poem, might not have been welcomed by the general public— that the second poem dealt with death much too harshly or baldly.

Dickinson's life was a quiet and solitary one. Perhaps it was simply easier to share what she felt the public could or would bear gracefully, and share her darker, inner thoughts only with close friends or fellow poets.

 

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