Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Season's Grievings

Season’s Grievings:
Emily Dickenson, The Holiday Season, and a Death in the Family

The speaker’s relation to her family is the primary concern of Dickenson’s “’T was Just This Time Last Year I Died.” What is made specifically apparent is that relationship seen through the lens of the speaker’s hypothetical death. Placed against the backdrop of the holiday season, the speaker uses what would normally be festive imagery to juxtapose normal holiday sentiments with the powerful emotive forces of the poem.
Key phrases capture the tone of the poem and provide the reader with insights into the life of the speaker. Some phrases, such as the opening, “’T was just this time last year I died,” are more cryptic than others. From just this line alone, at the outset of the poem, the reader can determine that the subject of the poem is likely to be nonstandard, though it may be well within what could be considered “standard” for Dickenson. The conversational tone of the line mimics a phrase that could be heard in regular speech—i.e. “It was just this time last week I went out for muffins.” Rather than muffins, the speaker has chosen to remark on death, which already provides the reader with two essential elements of the poem. One, some sort of death occurred one year ago. Two, this poem is a retrospective poem—the speaker is relating the following events from her personal past. Line 3 brings another essential fact about the speaker with “When I was carried by the farms,” indicating that the speaker has not only spent a portion of her life on farms, but that elements of the farm will play a strong role in the rest of the poem. And indeed it does with continued metaphors relating life to farm produce.
Other facts involving the speaker are the fact that she has a family, as evidenced by the presence of her father (15), another entity named, “Richard” (6), and the presence of other settings at a table (15), that her family is in possession of Christian beliefs (18-21). What is not so readily apparent, however, is the speaker’s dissatisfaction with this life. In line 7, the speaker addresses the intention “to get out,” and in the following line, indicates that she is being held against her will. What follows is traditional harvest imagery, red apples and carts full of pumpkins. Visually, the reader is led into the Thanksgiving dinner. Without the overshadow of death, the poem could be easily interpreted as a “coming home for the holidays.” Even the final two lines, “When just this time, some perfect year,/ Themselves should come to me” (23-24) could be indicative of having the family over to the speaker’s house rather than the speaker, herself, making the trek.
However, the theme of death is not easily ignored—especially when it makes its appearance in the opening stanza, and then continues its way through the festivities. The speaker specifically wonders which of her family members would miss her least—not most, least. This critical distinction in line 14 makes it clear that she does not expect her family to miss her very much at all. The speaker wonders if her father would still set a place for her at the table—not out of a sense of sentimentality, however, out of a love of even numbers, or the convenience of an even sum. Verse 5, though, is rich with emotional exploration, and the hypothetical situation deepens, by the speaker’s wondering of what would happen at Christmas time is she were dead. She has no doubt that there would still be Christmas glee (19)—her death would not be enough to stop that—but she wonders if they will remember her. She wonders if the presence of her “stocking hung too high” (18) would remind them of her. The speaker incorporates a traditionally merry symbol of Christmas into her death analogy, claiming that even Santa Claus could not reach her after-life location (19-20).
The final stanza lends itself to two interpretations of the poem in its entirety, both of which hinge upon the “sort” mentioned in the first line of this stanza. It is conceivable that the speaker is saying that dwelling upon thoughts of death grieve her, and to alleviate such dark tidings, she turns to happier thoughts of her family visiting her in her own home rather than her going to visit them. This theory requires accepting the term “perfect year” (23) at face value and that the speaker truly considers her family coming to her as a component of a “perfect year.” The second interpretation of this is significantly darker, and considers the “sort” that grieves her so to be her family. Thus, the situation then becomes that thoughts of her family grieve her so and the “perfect year” would be one in which the speaker has been dead for a year and her family has come to join her in the afterlife.

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