1732 (MY LIFE CLOSED TWICE BEFORE ITS CLOSE)
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.
--- Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson’s My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the foremost American poets of the 19th Century. This dazzling duo represents stark differences in writing styles. As we’ve already seen this month, Whitman’s imagination and vitality are incomparable. He subscribes to no rules and believes a holy world of possibility exists inside and around each of us. His contemporary, Emily Dickinson, could not be more different stylistically. Dickinson published very few poems in her life, kept to herself, and lived a life of morals and mystery. Her poems adhere to a strict rigidity in terms of rhyme, meter, and tone. Still, Dickinson shows immense flashes of creativity within the constructs of order she imposed upon her poems. I read her poems and marvel at the challenges she faced (mostly self created) as a writer. Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Whitman are the mother and father of American poetry. As one of their many children, it’s only fitting that I delve a little deeper into their poems.
My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close is a classic. If you were to check out poetry anthologies with Emily Dickinson included, I’m almost certain this poem would be one of her selections. Well received because of the depth and widespread appeal of the topics it addresses, this poem tackles the inescapable: life and death, heaven and hell. Dickinson begins the poem with a curious quartet of lines: “My life closed twice before its close— / It yet remains to see / If immortality unveil / A third event to me.” She creates the illusion of small deaths, the closures that exist in our life and dispatch feelings so final they appear to be preparation for our ultimate end. These crushing moments of loss and sorrow do little to make us excited for death, but after reflection and quiet moments we can glean some worth and value from them. Dickinson wonders if more small endings are in store; even though she doesn’t directly ask, there are undertones of anticipation. The tone she employs is not overtly angry, terrified, or dumbfounded. There is resignation in her simple lines, a forfeiting to the impending end that should be more than frightening to readers.
In the second quatrain, Dickinson clarifies that these events---the small closures---are not positive and, furthermore, they can’t be avoided. “Huge” and “hopeless” in her past, these endings have left a tangible scar on Dickinson. She expects more of the same. Humans are creatures of habit and routine; to draw from experiences in predicting the future is natural. What does she deduce? A memorable closing couplet “Parting is all we know of heaven / And all we need of hell.” What does that mean? Seriously, what does that mean? I’ve read this poem enough times to ask that question and formulate a varied assortment of answers. Tonight, as I read the poem, this is what it means to me: Heaven requires a faith driven separation from those still on earth with a distinct belief in a blessed reunion, while hell is a pariah and the ultimate punishment. We’ve only had one person come back from heaven, proving that the “parting” is particularly permanent. In the same breath, that parting is all we want of hell. We don’t need anyone to come back from hell to tell us how it is down there. Our imaginations are good for many things, and in this case they suffice to create our own conceptions of heaven and hell, conceptions that are more amazing and more terrifying than anything a first hand account could supply.
More so than any other poet, my interpretations of Emily Dickinson’s poetry changes as I acquire life experiences. Perspective is a strange thing---it can, and will, revolutionize our tastes in a gradual way. I might have read My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close when I was sixteen and hated it. Then, I might have revisited it at twenty five and loved it. And I could reread it at sixty two and abhor it again. These interpretations are contingent upon my life experiences coloring my readings of this poem. This is certainly the case with most poetry and artistic work in general, but I find certain writers trigger these evolving tastes more than others. Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Whitman are two I grow to love and respect more with each expiring breath. I get the feeling this fondness is bound to grow, rather than retract.