Emily Dickinson’s Poem, ‘My life closed twice before its close’

Emily Dickinson.

At this moment, as I write this at 6:01 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, that means it’s a moment of being alive, which means it’s a moment to gush over how freakin’ awesome Emily Dickinson is. Every single time I read one of her poems it’s an absolute delight. To use that word, when the “normies” think of poetry, especially poetry written in the olden days of the mid-to-late 1800s, Dickinson belies every possible notion they may conjure of a stuffy, hoity-toity genre that’s out-of-touch and difficult to process. Her poems don’t read like that at all. I also appreciate that Dickinson’s poetry, at least a lot of the poems I’ve encountered so far, are rather short.

Oh, it also happens to be Dickinson’s birthday, as she was born Dec. 10, 1830, and so, that’s even more occasion to celebrate her beautiful, wonderful poetry.

Today’s poem is, “My life closed twice before its close,” which is in the public domain:

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

If that’s not one of the best opening lines to a poem I’ve ever read, then I don’t know what is. Dickinson seems to be contemplating death, and the closest we get to death before our own death is experiencing the death of those close to us. Presumably then, she’s experienced death on two occasions already, and wonders if there will be a third.

But also, the closing two lines on the duality of how the parting of loved ones is all we know and can glimpse of heaven, but is surely all we need of hell. Because experiencing death is a certain kind of hell.

Growing up, particularly through my younger teens, was an odd juxtaposition of experiencing a rash of funerals and weddings, both celebrations of life in different contexts. And not just funerals of older relatives, which is still cause for melancholy, but there’s something wholly different, and yes, a certain kind of hell, to see someone your own age in a coffin.

And then there’s also the death of beloved pets, which is a certain sort of madness for dog-lovers (or uh, cat-lovers), right? Because we know their window is even shorter than ours, and yet, we can’t help but get another dog, knowing what awaits at the end of that short road. I’ve been through that once already, had another near-case of it, and am dreading it happening in full again.

Dickinson gives voice to that sort of low-hum madness that sits behind our ears, where we are walking toward death every day and we know we’re on that road, but we are rather “hopeless to conceive” of it, as it were, and it’s only the billboards of other deaths along that way that give us a glimpse (to really stretch this metaphor).

Also something to give further contemplation to is the word “closed.” Is to close the same as to end? Closing makes me think of something that isn’t permanent because to suggest something is closed is to suggest it can be opened again, whereas to say “ended” is permanent. You can’t “unend” something. Along with talking about Immortality and heaven/hell, it seems like Dickinson believes there is more after death, even if it “closes” on our lives.

What do you make of this lovely poem?

12 thoughts

  1. I think Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the father and mother of modern American poetry. One might make the claim that America didn’t have its “own” distinctive brand or style of poetry before them.

    As for the two “closes” — because Dickinson goes on to mention “parting,” I think she was probably not talking about nearly dying herself, but losing people she was close to. She lost her father in 1874. She lost her mother in 1882. She lost Judge Otis Phillips Lord, a close friend and possible romantic interest, in 1884. Because we don’t know when the poem was written, we can’t sure about the two people she meant, if indeed she was speaking about deaths. But losing one’s father and mother would seem like closing two chapters in a book, to many of us.

    Of course the “closes” could be other kinds of parting, such as the endings of relationships. But because Dickinson capitalized Immortality, it seems likelier that she was speaking about life and death, with the term perhaps meaning something like God or Heaven, or whoever or whatever decides when life is granted and taken, and what happens afterward.

    Thus, if I had to guess, I would guess that the two “closes” were losing her father and mother. But it would be no more than a guess.

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      1. Ralph Waldo Emerson and other prominent writers of that era seemed to agree that American needed to break free from the influence of English and European poetry and literature. When Whitman sent his revolutionary “Leaves of Grass” to Emerson, he recognized Whitman’s genius and uniquely American voice. I doubt that Emerson was aware of Dickinson because she was barely published in her lifetime. But they were both unique voices, and uniquely American voices. Emerson’s literary circle included Henry David Thoreau, who leased a Walden Pond house from him, I believe.

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      1. One of the more interesting poets influenced by Emily Dickinson, I believe, is E. E. Cummings (aka e. e. cummings).

        “The Kingdom of Heaven is no spiritual roofgarden: It’s inside you.” This line from a sermon by his father might be said of both poets.

        Like Dickinson, Cummings is both eclectic and seems “small” in his poems. (He chose not to capitalize the word “i” when he referred to himself.) While Dickinson is famous for her dashes, Cummings took liberties with all typography. Dickinson sometimes departed from purist English, and so did Cummings:

        … you are whatever a moon has always meant
        and whatever a sun will always sing is you …
        ―e. e. cummings

        Both poets wrote rhythmic poems without becoming over-regular.

        They were very different poets, but I think there are family resemblances.

        Other well-known poets influenced by Dickinson include Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. But I think Cummings is closer in his style, diction, eccentricities and heresies.

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      2. Ha, Cummings might be the precursor to the fashionable lack of capitalizing “I” on Twitter then. I’m going to have to dive into more Cummings; I’m intrigued by those lines. Thank you for sharing!

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      3. Yes, e e cummings made it fashionable for poets to ignore rules about capitalization and punctuation. from there it spread to the masses, im sure. My favorite poems of his include:

        i sing of Olaf glad and big (I’m a peace activist and this great anti-war poem in my favorite Cummings poem)
        the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
        Buffalo Bill’s defunct
        i carry your heart with me
        in just spring
        all in green my love went riding
        ity this busy monster, manunkind
        anyone lived in a pretty how town
        my father moved through dooms of love
        may i feel said he (cummings could get pretty sexy)
        since feeling is first
        next to god of course america i

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