Safe in their Alabaster Chambers— Insights

Emily Dickinson

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Those who "Sleep" and "Lie" in "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers"

One of the important differences between the 1859 and 1861 versions of Emily Dickinson's "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" is in the first stanzas of each version.  In the 1859 version,  we read, "Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection."  Dickinson makes a seemingly minor word choice alteration in the 1861 version: "Lie the meek members of the Resurrection."  From a poetic standpoint, the variation is not meaningful.  From a religious perspective, however, the choice may reflect Dickinson's very different view of the fate of those who await resurrection.

In conventional Christian ideology, those who have died are merely asleep as they wait for the certain coming of Christ and their resurrection.  The words asleep and lie in this context carry very different connotations: those who are asleep can be presumed to be awakened, but those who lie, a word that carries no such connotation, are simply in situ, in a fixed position and not necessarily in a posture to be awakened.  The question, of course, is, "Did Dickinson make this change for a reason connected to her perceptions of a conventional Christian belief system?"  Although we cannot know with certainty that the difference between asleep and lie is meaningful, such a change is consistent with Dickinson's skeptical view of conventional 19thC. Christianity.  Given other changes in the 1861 version--the exclamation point at the end of "Rafter of Satin--And Roof of Stone!"--which could imply the finality of death, Dickinson's change to lie might also be a signal that the meek members may be waiting for a resurrection that never arrives.