Looking back at “New feet within my garden go“, she writes that the “garden” is the cemetery where the dead live (and are at least a little annoyed with the carefree living walking about above). And here, once again, she alludes to her grave as a “garden”, but in this poem she is the carrier of death, the way a contagious person carries a disease, which is a way to think about death that nobody likes to consider since it forces us to face the fact that all of us carry this terminal condition.
When I first read the opening stanza, I wondered if perhaps she was talking about depression. She wouldn’t have had a word or medical diagnosis for this condition, but the disease existed then (and all through history) just as it does now. Here she seems to be struggling with a depression in that she is afraid to really face it for fear it should “conquer me”. The third line describes how she doesn’t “quite [have] the strength” which is a common feeling among people who are suffering from depression, but it also speaks to the even more terrifying condition of death which is present in all of us; death is continually inside us and robs us of life (our “strength”). The final line of the first stanza is truly heartbreaking because the “Bee” is an innocent creature that does not have the capacity to contemplate death (or suffer from depression), and it would be a shame to inflict such knowledge on such a simple, beautiful creature who is content to live in the moment.
The second stanza is particularly wonderful because the imagery evokes shame and a sort of emotional nakedness, as well as an honest admission of her own weaknesses. The “street” on which she will not name this disease of death is lined with the “shops” that “stare at me”. We can see the people looking out at Emily from inside their shops as she, in this imagined scene, announces death’s presence to the innocent townspeople the way she couldn’t do for the “Bee”. Yet she is on the outside here and everyone else is watching her out there alone acting totally out of character for someone usually “so shy – so ignorant”. She is exposed, both physically and emotionally, and the whole scene is frightening. And for someone who is suffering from depression, having people stare at you as (you imagine) they wonder what the hell is wrong with you, only adds to the anxiety and fear which deepens the depression. She ends the stanza with “have the face to die” which not only refers to her announcing the terrible news that death comes for us all, but is also the image of the face of shame on someone who is embarrassed and totally uncomfortable being so exposed.
The third stanza continues the theme of her possessing this knowledge of death but not revealing it to others because nobody wants to think about death all the time (the way a very depressed person might), but it also hints at a time when she was happier when she “rambled so” in the “loving forests”. She’s implying that there was a time that she too was ignorant of death – the way the people in the shops are, as well as the Bee – but the final line resting at the bottom of the stanza like a grave under the “hillside” and “forests” alludes to her death, and even possible a suicide: “The day that I shall go”.
The final stanza reveals the difficulty she has in talking about this subject. She writes that if she were to try she would only “lisp” the words – in other words they would come out all wrong – or otherwise she would be acting “heedless” towards the other people “at the table” by even bringing up such a depressing subject as each person’s inevitable and impending death. Yet the final two lines do give some hope because the “Riddle” is tied to the action of walking in the final line which implies that the act of living, despite death being ever present, is a sort of enigma. We carry on each day going about our business (as in our “shops”) with death inside of us every moment, yet we do have the strength to continue walking, to continue going on about our day, everyday. We do not give up and we persist in the “face” of that terrible truth that one day we all “shall go”. Where does this strength come from? Well, that’s the “Riddle” with a capital “R”.