ITHIN the Church, we dedicate the whole month of November to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Naturally, prayer for the Holy Souls is appropriate throughout the year, but it is especially so during this month. In addition to offering Masses and praying novenas for the Holy Souls, members of the Church traditionally make a special effort to visit the graves of their deceased relatives during November. Time has not yet run out this year, if you haven’t yet had the opportunity.
The theme of All Souls has been very present in my mind over the last few weeks. In particular, I have been drawn back to the poems by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), the reclusive poet from Amherst who wrote an immense number of poems on the theme of death.
I’ve reflected before on several poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (here and here). I’d like to share two Dickinson poems with you today.
Few of Dickinson’s poems have titles. Among those that do, the titles have very often been applied by editors, not by the author, herself. The first poem I would like to present here has a crisp title that helps to reveal its meaning. This is poem number XXIX in Dickinson’s first series.
At last to be identified!
At last, the lamps upon thy side,
The rest of life to see!
Past midnight, past the morning star!
Past sunrise! Ah! what leagues there are
Between our feet and day! 1
Here we have a description of the moment when glory dawns upon the departed soul. It is at this moment that the soul feels “identified,” as though for the very first time. Now is the time when the soul becomes capable of seeing “the rest of life.” It becomes apparent, as never before, “what leagues there are” between earthly and heavenly existence.
What strikes me most in these verses is the speaker’s sense of hope and ability to describe the utter newness of eternity. One senses that the scope and beauty and freshness of heavenly life is delightful to the speaker, even if its full grandeur lies somewhat beyond the powers of description.
The second poem I share with you today has no title, but it is number XXXI in her first series.
Death is a dialogue between
The spirit and the dust.
“Dissolve,” says Death. The Spirit, “Sir,
I have another trust.”
Death doubts it, argues from the ground.
The Spirit turns away,
Just laying off, for evidence,
An overcoat of clay. 2
This poem is remarkable for its use of contrast and metaphor. Its greatness, however, lies in the grand reversal it conveys. The seeming finality of death is not so firm as the “dust” would have us believe. On the contrary, the “spirit” is stalwart when confronted with the vapid empiricism of death. The spirit testifies that those who have died are not consigned to tragic dissolution. They possess, rather, “another trust.”
We Christians do, indeed, bear “another trust.” As the masterful preface from the Requiem Mass puts it, for the faithful Christian, vita mutatur, non tollitur. Life is changed, not ended.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Pantianos Classics, 2016), 35.
2 Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 36.