Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745
Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—” explores the most persistent theme in her poetry: death. Through her conceptualization of mortality, Dickinson analyzes the possibility of resurrection for the dead bodies lying in these “alabaster chambers.” While not offering a definitive answer to what occurs in the afterlife, she provides a consoling portrait of death in which corpses sleep peacefully in the safe and quiet comfort of their decorative tombs.
Dickinson wrote two versions of this poem. The original draft was sent to her sister-in-law in 1859, and an edited version was published as “The Sleeping” in 1861. The final version was posthumously published with its original title in 1890; as it was edited by Dickinson’s literary executors, this version is generally considered to be of less literary interest than the first two.
The 1859 and 1861 versions only contain minimal differences in the first stanza, which opens with the image of “meek members of the Resurrection” in their coffins with “Rafter[s] of Satin,” resting under a “Roof of Stone.” Accordingly, by employing this somewhat ironic image of bodies sleeping safely in death and perhaps anticipating the Resurrection, Dickinson establishes the pensive mood of the poem.
With abundant springtime imagery, in which “Light laughs the breeze” and “the Sweet Birds” sing “in ignorant cadence,” the 1859 version concludes with a sentimental tone. Personifying light as a female entity that lives in a castle in the sky, Dickinson hints at her exploration—and perhaps doubt—of transcendence. She thus characteristically embodies nature as a vibrant and eternal force, thereby creating a stronger juxtaposition with the sleeping corpses depicted in the first stanza. Dickinson also plays heavily with syntax and alliteration in this stanza, such as with the line “Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,” to amplify the vivacity of nature’s actions. Accordingly, in the sounds of nature—the babbling of the bees and singing of the birds—is heard the grief-stricken lament, “Ah, what sagacity perished here!”
On the other hand, in the 1861 publication, the second stanza is entirely different, perhaps alluding to a change in Dickinson’s attitude towards death and resurrection. With a darker tone and a choppier style, Dickinson focuses on sound—as opposed to emotive imagery—as a literary device to expound upon her somber reflections of death and resurrection. In contrast to the 1859 version’s natural melody, Dickinson uses multiple dashes in this version, as seen in the lines “Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—” and “Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender.” By intentionally interrupting the poem’s flow, Dickinson emphasizes words like “Years” and “Crescent.” This version also exemplifies how Dickinson experiments with capitalization and punctuation to underscore her poetic intentions and to build layered relationships between words, sounds, and images; significantly, the 1861 version uses only dashes for punctuation throughout.
In the second version of the poem, Dickinson markedly uses alliteration and a trochaic meter (which involves a pattern of stressed syllables followed by unstressed syllables) for emphasis, such as in the final lines of the poem:
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
Soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow—
Through creating this marriage between sound and image, Dickinson vacillates between the aggressive harshness of words beginning with d and the subdued, less aggressive s sounds. Though the 1859 and 1861 versions differ significantly in their second stanzas, both versions end in this abcb rhyme scheme.
The variations between the first two versions of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—” provide added context to Dickinson’s poetic process when navigating heavy themes. While both retain the introductory image of corpses in their stone tombs, the drastic change in tone and form between the drafts’ second stanzas suggests that Dickinson continually sought to broaden her perceptions of death and resurrection.
By examining the Christian conception of resurrection, Dickinson explores the contradictions between transcendence through rebirth and the finality of death. Consequently, she jarringly shifts from springtime to wintertime between the first two versions of the poem—from the season of rebirth to the season of death. In the 1861 version, she ends with the simile, “Soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow,” and this ambiguous image further highlights Dickinson’s developing poetic connection to death. Concluding the poem on this note thus subtly references Dickinson’s own conception of death as something that is final but also natural; consequently, this poem effectively communicates her eminent belief that death represents a natural culmination of the life cycle.
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