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Analysis of Emily Dickinson's poem #124 (216) "Safe in their alabaster chambers"

Analysis of Emily Dickinson's 124 (216) safe in their alabaster chambers


Emily Dickinson's poem "124 (216)" is one of the many poems that she wrote and rewrote several times. The first version was written in 1859 and she most likely sent it to her sister-in-law, Sue Dickinson. Sue likely advised Emily to make substantial changes. Emily Dickinson sent a revised version of the poem to Thomas W. Higginson, her literary critic friend, in 1862. This analysis will deal with the second version, which is the generally accepted version.

Emily Dickinson's 124 (216) safe in their alabaster chambers (text)


The topic of this poem is resurrection, which fits in with Emily's literary preoccupation with death. Resurrection refers to either the rising of Christ from the dead or the rising to life of all human dead before the final judgment. According to Ted Vial, Protestants traditionally "believe in judgment day at the end of history. On this day all the dead from throughout human history will be resurrected, and will possess some sort of physical body that will resemble but yet be different from the body possessed during earthly existence…at the final resurrection of the dead, the saints (or, the elect) enter heaven, while the damned are sent to hell."

The dead are "safe in their alabaster chambers" awaiting resurrection meekly. "Alabaster" is a translucent white material; in this poem "alabaster chambers" refers to the coffins or tombs of the dead. She describes the dead as being "meek," which is defined as enduring injury with patience and without resentment; they really have no choice to be anything but meek, because they are no longer in control of their futures. The dead are hidden from the light of the morning and noon; light is often associated with God, so being in darkness means that they have not yet ascended to heaven.

"Crescent" refers to the moon and essentially the grand heavens above. The years keep going by as the dead wait to rise into heaven. "Worlds scoop their arcs" has various interpretations that pun the word "arc." Scoop is defined as the action of making something hollow. An arc is a continuous portion of a curved line. The arc could be referring to the arc of the moon; as time passes the moon goes through a never ending cycle of full moon to no moon. Arc could also be referring to Noah's ark; God chose to save Noah and his family, in order to propagate the earth after the great flood. "Firmaments" are the arches of the sky (i.e. heavens). "Row" is also punned; a "row" is defined as both a noisy quarrel, and the action of propelling a boat with oars. If one were to use the first definition (a noisy quarrel) then "row" personifies the heavens; either God quarrels with his son over when to end time and begin the Judgment, or the noisy quarrel signifies a huge storm is coming. The storm would justify the image of Noah's ark; also, the second definition of "row" continues the nautical theme. "Diadems" (crowns) drop from the heads of kings and queens, and doges (chief magistrates in the republics of Venice and Genoa) surrender to the will of God. Everyone becomes equal before God. The dead become "soundless as dots on a disc of snow." The meek are like tiny dots on a piece of snow-minuscule. This juxtaposes the grand moon; mankind is merely specks compared with the heavens.

Analysis of Emily Dickinson's 124 (216) safe in their alabaster chambers (sources)

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