This poem is ironic, starting with the first line. In what sense or way are the dead "safe"? Is this the way you would like to be safe? "Alabaster" has two meanings; alabaster is expensive and beautiful; it is also cold and unfeeling. "Chambers" begins the metaphor of the tomb being a home and the dead being asleep; the satin "rafter" lines the coffin lid, and the tomb is stone. If the sleepers are "members of the resurrection," why are they still sleeping or buried in the ground? why are they not risen? Why does time ("morning" and "noon") pass them by? The terms "resurrection" and "meek" call up the promises of Christ that the meek would inherit the earth and enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Stanza two describes the indifference of nature to the dead; it is spring or summer, whose rebirth or fulfillment contrasts with the isolated dead. They do not hear the joyful sounds of nature, for their ears are "stolid" (stolid: unemotional, unresponsive). The birds are ignorant in that they know nothing of the dead. The gifts and accomplishment of the dead are buried too; does this suggest that these gifts and accomplishments are ultimately meaningless? Why does Dickinson use the word "perished"?
It is possible that Dickinson, raised in the Puritan tradition, also has in mind the idea that God's will can be seen in the working of nature. The Puritans saw in every fact of nature the working of God's law; every physical happening paralleled and revealed a spiritual law. If Dickinson was thinking of nature symbolically for signs of God's will and presence, then nature's indifference reveals God's indifference; the references to nature become even more ironic in that case.
The last stanza portrays the "grand" passage of time and the movements of the universe ("world" and "firmaments"). Human history undergoes revolutions: kings lose their "diadems" or crowns; doges, the former rulers of Venice, lose wars. Humanity is indifferent to the dead. They have no effect on or relationship to life in this world, just as they have none to an eternal one. They sleep on; there has been no resurrection. Christ's promise is false.
The last line is baffling, "Soundless as dots on a disk of snow." Frankly, I don't know what it means, nor have any explanations I've heard or read convinced me. This line has received a considerable amount of attention. I do find the image somehow moving and effective and am willing to join those critics who say that it speaks to us at a non-linguistic level. So I leave you to puzzle out a meaning--or not--for this line.
Though I classify this poem under the theme of "God," it obviously discusses death, immortality, and fame as well.
|Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
| "A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
| "After great pain a formal feeling
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
| "Success is counted sweetest"
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
| "Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
|"I started Early--took my Dog--"
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall,"p. 23
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