The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

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In this twenty-line poem comprising five four-line stanzas, Emily Dickinson deals with the topics that she most frequently addresses in her poetry: death, loneliness, the hope (but never the promise) of immortality. She begins with the observation that the man who runs away, who disappears, is enhanced by his having left, because his memory lingers and perhaps is softened by his absence. He is, in Dickinson’s words, “tinctured for an instant/ With Immortality,” which is Dickinson’s initial hint that the poem will be concerned ultimately with death.

Yesterday’s vagrant today resides in memory, where he takes on a “superstitious value” as those who knew him tamper with their memories of him, adjusting those memories to suit their own consciences. In the first two stanzas, Dickinson toys with the notion that distance alters memories. Her capitalization of “Immortality” lends an enhanced importance to the word, often the most significant word in her poems.

The phrase “We tamper with Again’” at the end of the second stanza implies that the man who runs away, the vagrant, is better gone. This leads into the word “Never” in the next line, where the anonymous “we” in the poem cannot cherish the man but can adorn him with memories softened by his departure.

By the beginning of the fourth stanza, it is clear that the poet is talking about more than just a man who runs off, a vagrant who disappears, because in this stanza she introduces “Death,” with a capital D, prominently in the first line. As soon as readers encounter this word, their minds leap back to the first stanza’s “tinctured for an instant/ With Immortality.”

As is usual in Dickinson’s poems, the poet leads her readers into the poem on a literal level but quickly moves to a more metaphorical level that is related in subtle ways to the initial literalness of the poem. She clinches the metaphorical meaning in the fourth stanza, then she moves on with considerable whimsy to the final stanza, which can be taken in a variety of ways.

The “Fruit perverse to plucking” can be read as a person unready and unwilling to die, but it can also be read more personally on a Freudian level to suggest something about Dickinson’s own sexuality. She was the quintessential virgin, the unviolated woman with volcanic passions that, in her time and in her social situation, she dared not expose except in her poetry. Her poetry is redolent with sexual innuendo if one chooses to read it in that way. Certainly the bases for such interpretation exist within many Dickinson poems.

It is clear that this poem is about loss, but the poem does not bemoan the loss. Rather, it accepts the loss as the basis for creating memories that are perhaps more agreeable than the actual presence of the one who disappeared. Proximity does not always breed appreciation. Whereas physical beings frequently act independently of others, when such beings cease to be present, others completely control their own memories of them. Dickinson seems comforted at the thought that such control is possible. In this poem she sets up an interesting dichotomy between reality and memory, between proximity and distance.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

The short stanzas and overall brevity of this poem typify much of Emily Dickinson’s verse. Her longest poem (“I cannot live with You—”) consists of a mere fifty lines. Few of her poems exceed twenty-five lines. The economy of words in all of Dickinson’s verse is notable. Like most accomplished poets, Dickinson regularly calls upon a single word to do double or triple duty.

This poem is more abstract than some of Dickinson’s other poems and as a result has less of the visual imagery that one finds in a poem such as “I taste a liquor never brewed—” or “I like to see it lap the Miles—.” “To disappear enhances—” deals essentially with nonvisual things: disappearance, honor, memory, immortality, excellence, delight—things of the mind. Even words that usually evoke visual images, notably “fruit,” “man,” and “vagrant,” as used here are so metaphoric that their visual qualities are diminished, an effect that Dickinson intended.

The rhyming patterns exemplify the various kinds of rhyme with which Dickinson experimented constantly. In the first stanza, she uses imperfect rhyme when she ends line 2 with “away” and line 4 with “Immortality.” Dickinson does not stray from perfect rhyme because she is incapable of achieving it. Indeed, her manuscripts, detailed in Thomas H. Johnson’s edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Including Variant Readings Critically Compared with All Known Manuscripts (published by the Harvard University Press in a three-volume edition in 1955), reveal that she often achieved perfect rhyme only to alter it consciously into imperfect, suspended (saw/now), or so-called eye rhyme (one/lone). In this poem, one finds eye rhyme in the second stanza, where “lain” and “again” look more similar than they sound.

In the third stanza, Dickinson stretches even further when she ends line 2 with “thing” and line 4 with “adorn,” where the only auditory link is the n sound. In the following stanza, she creates a similar situation, ending line 2 with “discern” and line 4 with “then,” again using the n sound as the most prominent commonality between the two words.

Dickinson pushed poetry to new limits because she consciously and continuously strove to avoid the conventional, monotonously rhyming poetry that is often the mark of popular but not very accomplished poets. One might call Dickinson a minimalist whose impact is subtle but striking. She likes to select words that will explode in readers’ imaginations. The key word in this poem is “tinctured,” which evokes visual and olfactory images in many readers, who, upon encountering the word, think immediately of something such as tincture of iodine, with its sharp, characteristic smell and its typically deep orangish color.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

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