Safe in their Alabaster Chambers— Summary
Dickinson wrote several versions of this poem, sending them quite literally across the backyard hedge for the opinion of her sister-in-law. Unable to make a final decision, she sent two versions to Higginson, who printed the completely different final stanza of the second version together with the two stanzas of the first version, thereby creating a single poem one-third longer than Dickinson had intended.
There are curious implications in this poem that critics often overlook. Read straightforwardly, it states that the meek sleep safely in their satin-raftered, stone-roofed graves and confidently await their resurrection to ratify the salvation they already know is theirs. Breezes laugh in the castle above them; bees buzz “in a stolid Ear,” and birds sing ignorantly in cadence. The poem concludes with a lament on the wisdom lost with the dead. In the second stanza of the 1861 version, the ages wheel by, crowns drop, and doges (Italian dukes) lose their power silently.
The cynical implication of the 1859 version’s second stanza is that the breeze laughs at them as they wait, the bee gossips about them in the unyielding ear of creation, and the birds sing their meaningless songs in rhythm even as no resurrection occurs. In the 1861 version, years pass through the firmament, crowns drop, and power passes; it all happens silently, but the justified merely wait, safe in the comfort of their ignorance.
Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.
Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.”
(The entire section is 376 words.)