Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—

by Emily Dickinson

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Discuss the different versions of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers."

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In the 1861 version of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," we have a poem which emphasizes the continuity between those dead and those who remain alive. Death is something which will eventually befall everybody, even those who are most important—the dead are sleeping, but they are not dead. In contrast, in 1859's "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," death is simply the end for everybody; it may as well have already happened.

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There are two versions of this poem, one dating from 1859, and one from 1861. In both versions, the first stanza is very similar—the key difference here is that the earlier version has the "meek members" asleep, while in the second version, they "lie." The nuance here, we could argue, is that to sleep suggests passivity, being closed off to the world, while if the dead are only lying in this chamber, there is a possibility that their consciousness remains somehow within our reach.

This is an idea which is carried through into the second stanzas, which differ far more significantly between the two poems. In the first version of the poem, Dickinson describes the "ignorant" chatter of bees, birds and the breeze, all of which continue to exist happily without any awareness of what "sagacity perished here." In this version of the poem, then, we can see that the wisdom of those in the chambers is definitively beyond our reach: as they "sleep," they may as well have perished.

By contrast, in the second version of the poem, the continuity of those lying in the chambers is emphasized. The language Dickinson uses creates a semantic field of grandeur and importance: the years that continue to pass are "grand," and "diadems" and "doges" seemingly "surrender" to death in the same way that the sleepers have done. This choice of language, and of exemplars, emphasizes the fact that death is not something which happens only to those of us who will be unremarked except by birds and the bees—it is something which will demand surrender from everybody, even those who are far more important than those in the "alabaster chambers." Lords, princes, and other wearers of diadems will eventually succumb to death and will then simply lie in their chambers while the world continues above them, knowing that they are there, but moving on without them.

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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.

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