Originally published as ‘The Sleeping’ in 1861, ‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers’ should be viewed in the light of Emily Dickinson’s letter to Abiah Root, in which she wrote:
‘some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep – ‘
The literary connection between sleep and death is, therefore, implicit in the poem.
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers – The meaning of ‘safe’ is ambiguous: is it as in ‘secure’ (unlike life) and/or does the meaning stretch to that of Banquo being ‘safe in a ditch’? Alabaster is semi-transparent stone which is associated with purity and honour. Alabaster was a popular imitation marble material with the middle class, at the time.
Untouched by Morning – Symbolising hope and youth. Beyond the symbolism, this line and the next, together, demonstrate timeless non-existence.
And untouched by noon – Symbolising maturity.
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection – Humble believers alliterated but appropriately without the capital letter which is, perhaps ironically, given to the Resurrection, which they will not experience. Some commentators feel that Dickinson is satirising the belief that the humble will be rewarded in heaven.
Rafter of Satin – and Roof of Stone! Literally, the poet is describing the look of the pall over the coffin under the mausoleum’s roof; although others think differently! The antithesis of the words ‘satin’ and ‘stone’ is further drawn out by their sibilance, exposing the uneasy contrast of the sensual material with the cap of unyielding finality. The structural elements ‘Rafter’ and ‘Roof’, also alliterated, combine to rigidly hold the divergent contrast together – thus creating enormous tension in the line.
Grand go the Years – in the Crescent – above them – The procession of time takes place at a measured pace in the universe. ‘Crescent’ conjures up the star-filled night sky.
Worlds scoop their Arcs – A metaphorical image of unimpeded power.
And Firmaments – row
Diadems – drop – and Doges – surrender – Diadems symbolise lavish wealth, but they are also synecdochal of royalty: extravagant visual image of the constellationss as rows of jewelled crowns. The ‘d’, ‘t’, ‘s’ and ‘k’ sounds merge in these final two lines. Even the wealthy, powerful elite become as nothing being vanquished by death.
Soundless as dots – on a Disc of Snow – This simile seems to convey far more than the absence of sound on a ‘Disc of snow’: dots can never be heard; here is an image of utter insignificance on the face of cold eternity.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was known to Emily Dickinson: she attended one of his lectures and is said by some to have met him at her home and when he stayed with an immediate neighbour. He was a leading proponent of the Transcendalist movement in the States, who proposed that we ‘intuit’ about truth, life and God. Moreover, the movement believed that church-goers cut themselves off from breezes, birds and natural creatures – hence giving substance to the view that Dickinson is satirising the ‘members of the resurrection’..
MY OTHER PAGES ON EMILY DICKINSON’S WORK
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