A brief, but patient illness

Legend of St Francis, 1337, Giotto
Background Image: Legend of St Francis, 1337, Giotto

The book I’m using to explore Emily Dickinson’s poems breaks up “The Gentian weaves her fringes”, “A brief, but patient illness”, and “In the name of the Bee” into three seperate poems.

There is a narrative to this poem unlike the previous poem which relies on imagery to convey the passage of time. Here she beings with the words “brief” and “hour” and “morning” (which can also be read as ‘mourning’) to set the scene of someone who has died and whom the funeral is being held. Her use of the word “patient” is interesting in that not only is it referring to a patient (someone who is afflicted) but that the “illness” (that from which the patient suffered) was a “patient illness”. Perhaps it was an illness that had lingered undetected and then suddenly killed the “patient” or perhaps it was a long, drawn out “illness” from which the “patient” recently died from.

The third and fourth lines deal with, perhaps, the body recently buried “below” and she juxtaposes this with the “angels” who are normally above, yet she keeps them in the ground. Perhaps this is her emotional attachment to the recently deceased in that she still sees them as an “angel” – as you might call a dear friend – or that a transformation has taken place and the recently deceased has become an angel and is speeding towards heaven. By formally placing the “angel” underneath the the body she is able to express her grief as well as her faith.

The “short procession” relates back to “The Gentian weaves her fringes” when she describes the “obviate parade”. Here it’s a funeral procession, but it could also be referring to the “illness” which was short. However, her image of a procession often refers to life as being a procession, such as in “One dignity delays for all” and she could be writing about how short life is and how little time we have with each other in this mortal realm.

Emily often refers to the world we live in in natural images. Here she paints a pastoral scene with the “bobolink” and the “Bee”, but her wordplay is more sophisticated than just nature imagery. Her phrase “aged bee” can also be read as the aged be, as in those who remain behind and are now old and getting closer to death which is the ultimate “patient illness”.

After she describes them kneeling “in prayer”, she has an unusual line, “We trust that she was willing”. Is the recently deceased the “she” and why is Emily worried if she was “willing” or not? The next line reads “We ask that we may be”, so perhaps she is referring to being willing to go onto the next life, to not cling too long to this one like an “aged Bee”?

She ends the poem with the image of transformation from nature (“Summer”) when all things grow and are alive but is not the thing that itself is alive rather it is that which provides the opportunity for life. She then moves to “Sister”, meaning those we love and who are products of “Summer” but who will one day continue in this “procession” of life towards death (the “patient illness”) until, being willing, we become like a Seraph, which is the greatest of the angels whom Emily believes her friend has become.

She thus ends the poem with the direction that we should “go with thee” meaning go on towards the next life in glory and all become eternal Seraphs.