Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

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.

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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 marks around “Again” and “Never” in stanzas 2 and 3 emphasize two opposites, as does Dickinson’s idiosyncratic capitalization of these words. Her terminal punctuation—dashes rather than periods, and not even many dashes—undergirds the theme of continuance that the poem suggests by its emphasis on memory, which in this case becomes a virtual synonym for conscience.

The last stanza of “To disappear enhances—” is a curious one. It is infused with sexually charged words, notably “plucking” and “ecstatic.” The choice of “perverse” in this context suggests but does not clearly state Dickinson’s views on her own sexual restraint and virginity. This suggestion is buttressed by the words “unobtained Delight,” used with considerable irony at the poem’s end. Dickinson during her lifetime had platonic attachments to several men; it is speculated that she was in love with at least two of them, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Judge Otis Phillips Lord. This poem can perhaps be read within the context of her unfulfilled love as well as within the context of the imposed sexual restraint of her era and her society.

The final stanza is about as puckish as Emily Dickinson ever becomes, particularly in line 2, where she implies an openness to love and, indeed, to sexual encounter, although one must probe far below the literal surface meaning of the poem to arrive at such an interpretation. In many ways, the last verse of “To disappear enhances—” is a maverick verse, close to but not quite being a free-standing poem unto itself.

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