Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

It is interesting that in the first stanza, Dickinson, who is a conscious wordsmith of unquestionable competence, refers to “the Man that runs away” rather than to “the Man who runs away,” which would be the more usual relative pronoun to use in this instance. By using “that” rather than “who,” Dickinson decreases the humanness of the man in question, making him more of an abstraction than he would be had the more usual pronoun been selected.

On one hand, the theme of this poem is concerned with the loss of a person. On the other hand, it is concerned with control because the “we” in the poem can re-create the lost individual, the vagrant, simply by tampering with their individual memories of him. Whereas Dickinson begins by applying this control to someone who has gone away, she quickly moves toward universalizing it by introducing Death in the fourth stanza, making it clear that subtle overtones of death lurk barely visible even in the first two stanzas. The first two lines of the second stanza seem funereal after one has read the fourth stanza, although they might not strike one that way initially. The term “superstitious value” in the second stanza assumes ghostly tones when read in the light of the fourth stanza.

The “we” in the poem is a collective we, a Greek chorus kind of “we,” reflecting the conscience of a community in regard to loss, separation, and ultimately death. The quotation...

(The entire section is 496 words.)