Emily Dickinson's poem #338 begins with a simple, declarative sentence" I know that he exists"-which is then gradually and thoroughly undermined by the rest of the poem. Immediately after that initial straightforward statement, the speaker's actual lack of concrete knowledge begins to come into view.
He has hid his rare
life From our gross eyes.
Thus, rather than a statement like the first, which practically boasts of a verifiable knowledge of the existence of God, we have the expression of a confident faith. Doubt has not yet crept into the speaker's voice, but there is a slight lessening of certitude. This second statement says that we can neither see nor hear God. He is both hidden "in Silence" and away "From our gross eyes." "Gross" is contrasted with "rare" and suggests both "coarse" and "multiple": all of our eyes are unworthy of looking upon the singular, uncommon presence of God.
The second stanza begins by declaring that life is an instant's play." The word "play" here has both the significance suggested by the words "jest" and "fun" in the final stanza and the metaphorical significance probably stated best by Shakespeare in As You Like It: "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players" (2.7. 149-50). Through the double meaning of this word, the sense of uncertainly slowly pushes further forward. The word "play" tells us that life is a game, which lasts only an "instant" compared to the immortality bestowed upon us after death. At the same time, the word carries the undertone that life and death may not be quite what they seem to the person who holds a firm faith in the unverifiable. Life is an act wherein the reality lies below the surface. or behind the action. Just as long as we are able to maintain our faith in the idea that what we do not see is benevolent, we need not worry.
Still, despite the double meaning of that single word, the second stanza remains confident in the blessings that we will receive at the hands of that silent God. The idea of our God as a hidden God is continued with the image of life as a "fond Ambush," in which He will jump out in playful "surprise" after this little life is over. At this time, the speaker is happily confident that "Bliss," the presence of heaven, will be set before us. The "surprise" will be the excitement of finally coming face to face with Him. The exclamation point after "surprise" makes the word read as though He were jumping out from his hiding place with the special gift of immortality. (The speaker, at this point, is certain of her ability to predict the gift, even before she has unwrapped it.) This hardly seems like a revelation, more like a nice ending to a quick game. Heaven has placed us on earth for the sole purpose of being able to show us, when life here is over, that there is a heaven. There is nothing sublime about this sentiment, so far.
The change from the tone of confident faith in the first two stanzas is marked by the single, doubt-filled word "But-." In the face of the reality of death, all the speaker's doubts begin to come to the fore. The speaker shows a great sense of fear that all this "play" may be nothing less than tragic and "piercing earnest." The speaker's increasingly intense doubt about what will happen after death is underlined by the repetition of the uncertain word "should" and by the heavy g and t sounds pushing through the poem: "Should the glee-glaze- / In Death's-stiff-stare-." These sounds are even more disturbing because they were present earlier in the poem, but without the concentrated punch that they have in these two key lines. That which was only subtly present earlier, like the speaker's doubt, has now made its presence undeniable. The first two lines of the second stanza begin with the word "'Tis' " In the third stanza, those soft t's and s's are transformed into part of "Death's-stiff-stare-." These sounds, plus the three repeated p's in the first two lines of the stanza, push forward to disrupt the soft sense created by the sounds of the first two stanzas.
The unrhythmic way in which some of the words in the third stanza rhyme with earlier words is also disquieting. "Stare" / "rare" and "glee"/"He" do not come in the same position in the line, as though they are meant to disturb anyone looking for a smooth pattern from start to finish. The other descriptive words in those two lines use an interior rhyme to reflect upon an earlier important word: "glaze" with "play," "stiff" with "Bliss." These words alter the apparent sense of the first two stanzas, dragging the poem downward from playful faith to helpless fear. The disquieting rhymes and disturbing sounds (not to mention the image of childish "glee" glazing over in the face of death's inalterably "stiff" finality) in the last two lines of the third stanza thoroughly condense the speaker's mounting fear that Death may not be so benevolent after all.
This fear leads into the desperate declarations of the final stanza. The words of the final stanza are structured as though they should be expressed as questions; yet the reader should feel a sense of disturbance when finding exclamation points in the place of question marks:
Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest--
Have crawled too far!
The speaker is not asking the reader's opinion on this subject; she is conveying the awful sense of the idea that we are not immortal. The poem itself is a fall from the faith of the first line, ending with this expression of panic.
The word "expensive" echoes "earn" in the second stanza and expresses the sense that this playful fun that we have here on earth would not be worthwhile if we were to have to confront a merciless glare from death. The promise of immortality is necessary for our play to be worth the price. In the manuscript copy of the poem, "joke" had originally been written in place of "fun" in this last stanza but was then scribbled out. The word "joke" makes it clear that, with or without faith, there is a perpetrator behind this life. Someone is responsible for this ambiguous ambush, whether it is He, or Death. The fear that fills this final stanza is based on this uncertainty. Though the word "joke" is not used, "jest" makes the same point in a slightly more subtle way. ("Jest" suggests that we may be the objects of someone else's fun, rather than partners in good humor. It is frighteningly possible that the director backstage is jestful Death, and that we are being ridiculed.)
The earlier sense of life as a game that is fun, with a guaranteed happy ending, is abandoned in the final two lines. Life now appears to be something that crawls steadily forward, crawling like an infant, or a dying man, toward an uncertain fate. (Will we see blissful Him or uncompromising Death at the end?) The word "jest" recalls the earlier words "play" and "surprise," but within the panic of this stanza the surprise has a more malicious tone. The play has turned mean; the surprise is now meant to scare. In the presence of death, the whole idea of faith has come to seem nothing more than a cruel hoax. The final sense is that death is the punch line to a bad joke that has gone "too far."
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960.
--. The Manuscript Books (if Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.
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