Apparently this poem was written for a friend on the birthday, though imagine being the recipient of a poem which, though it starts off saying if she fails to “bring a Rose” it’s because she is unable, but then ends with an image of her struggling to speak as death “Clasps” its fingers over her mouth as if she’s choking or drowning. However, I would imagine being friends with Emily would mean you either have a high tolerance for this sort of thing from her, or might possibly see it as something humorous.
I mention the possibility of humor here because the two main images in this poem – a “festal day” and “Death’s fingers” – contrast so much that if this was a gift to someone it might be Emily having a little bit of morbid fun with a friend. I can’t prove this at all, but given what we know of her personality and her sense of devious fun, I wouldn’t put it past her to play up her morbid interests with a friend for a laugh – it’s something we’ve all done with our own friends when we joke about the quirks of our own personalities, so why do we have to assume she’s being completely serious here? Granted, I’m 100% speculating, but it’s not so “beyond the Rose” as to be impossible.
However, if she is being serious, she’s seems interested in the image of mouths and of speaking. In the first stanza she uses “festal” which is a festival and a feast where food is involved.Yet in the final line of the first stanza, she has “been called away” – someone said something to her to cause her to go somewhere else. In other words, instead of a celebration where people “commemorate” another (usually with joyous words), some mysterious speaker calls her away.
This image is built upon in the second stanza with the image of her “lip” still “murmuring” – meaning she’s still trying to speak but she is being prevented by something stronger than her. Her mouth is covered and so she is unable to participate in a “festal” commemoration and can’t eat or speak. In fact she even implies that her own name (her identity) has been stolen because she is unable to speak (and we could extend this to writing, too). She claims she is unable to “take the names / My buds commemorate” meaning that when her friends call out to her she can no longer hear them because she has been transformed somehow, as if her identity has been so altered that nobody can call her back. This is, in fact, a terrifying image of death, especially since she seems to be struggling against “Death’s finger” with her “murmuring lip”.
The final stanza could also be read as her “buds” being her poems and that her poems which usually “commemorate” her friends “names” will cease when “Death’s finger” (her finger) no longer “clasps” the pen, but because she is dying she can no longer write a new bud. In this sense she is speaking about how her poetry is her voice and her way of commemorating her friends and is even implying that she is unable to do so in any other way.