I often passed the village

Village Cemetery Entrance, 1854, Franz von Lenbach
Background Image: Village Cemetery Entrance, 1854, Franz von Lenbach

When in doubt, always assume Emily is talking about death and a cemetery. But I do love how she describes the cemetery as a Village where the dead must be up to something, though it’s “still” and “cooler than the dawn”. In fact, I was reminded of the brilliant novel, Pedro Páramo in which a whole town’s dead are quite lively and very much want to be remembered but whom are willingly forgotten by the end of the novel.

The first stanza uses the word “often” when describing how many times she passed the “Village” on the way home from school. This use of “often” implies that she didn’t come by this way everyday meaning she could have taken an alternate route but “often” chose to travel past the cemetery. This relates to the end of the poem when she tells “Dollie” that when she is “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold” that she too can come by the cemetery, which means that this might be how Emily felt when she was drawn to the grave. Emily earlier used the word “strength” in “I haven’t told my garden yet” to describe how she feels about talking about death and how that could relate to depression sapping her of vitality, and so she is alluding to death slowly taking the life from her.

The second stanza is very odd in that her use of “then” suggests that she eventually became aware of the exact time Death came for her, meaning that at this point in the poem she has died, and has died at a young age, “Earlier, by the Dial / Than the rest have gone”. But I also read it in conjunction with the word “school” in that she has been educated about Death itself and that Death will come at a specific time for her, but she doesn’t necessarily know the exact time. In the previous poem, “I haven’t told my garden yet“, she has become aware of Death but is afraid to tell everyone about it for fear they will think she is a crazy person and that her rambling on about the subject will only be upsetting for everyone. So this stanza could be about how she is aware of Death living in its “Village” and that she became aware of Death at a very early age. And this sense of being educated by Death relates to the end of the poem, with its strong rhyming pattern of “cold”, “mould” and “enfold” as you would use to teach a small child about something you need them to remember in “school”, in that this knowledge has enticed her and she is consumed with this knowledge of Death.

Thus, if we read the poem not as Emily being dead, but as being educated about death, then the third stanza can be read not as her describing the “Village” as if she is a permanent resident, but from the point of view as her as a schoolgirl viewing this scene and contemplating existence there with the knowledge of Death but also with being enticed by it. Death is, after all, always with us and will eventually entice us all to the grave, and this chilling description of a cemetery where it’s “stiller than the sundown” (which relates to time and the “Dial” of a clock running out), and it being “cooler than the dawn”, which comes after the long night after a “sundown”, and where the “Daisies dare” and where “birds can flutter” if they also “dare” – this whole image is both enticing in its beauty, but its a macabre beauty full of night, time stopped, and it being a place where flowers must dare to go.

The final stanza then can be read two ways. One is that if Emily is dead in this poem, then “Dollie” (her sister-in-law, Susan) can come to the cemetery when she is also feeling “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold” and cry out to Emily to take her and thus Emily will pull her down into the ground with her. In fact this is both a macabre but also romantic image of two close friends spending all eternity in an embrace, but it’s also sinister in that Emily seems to be the one in charge here and that she is pulling her friend down as one of Homer’s sirens would pull Ulysses into the sea. You can almost see the word “enfold” acting like the roots of the earth reaching up to ensnare “Dollie” and pull her down into the grave as the dirt covers their bodies.

But the other way this final stanza could be read is that Emily is still alive but merely possesses the chilling knowledge of Death and that if they are both feeling “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold”, that Death should take “Dollie” instead of herself because since she has been educated about Death she is afraid of Death. In the line “it’s I,” “take Dollie” there is a break between the quotes so it’s not exactly clear who is saying either “it’s I,” or “take Dollie”. The common reading is to say it is “Dollie” speaking at Emily’s grave and that she is grief-struck and wants to be with Emily for all eternity in death. But it could also be read that when Death has come for both of them, Emily, recognizing Death because of her education of all those times passing by his “Village”, cries out to Death to recognize her, “It’s I,” (meaning “it’s me, Emily, don’t you remember or recognize me?) and then she tells Death to “take Dollie” instead.

And if we take the more unconventional reading of this poem as Emily telling Death to take her close friend instead of her, then the final word “enfold” could take on many more meanings, such as the usage of the way sheep are put in their pen which could suggest Emily has become Death-like in taking her friend (who is ignorant of Death (if we consider the previous poem, “I haven’t told my garden yet“) to the grave where she is sort of a shepherd who must bury one of her flock. It could allude to the image one enfolded in mourning clothes, wrapped up in grief the way one protects themselves against the cold, or simply to embrace “Dollie” the way one would when paying their final respects at the wake.

Granted, my reading is somewhat unorthodox, but I don’t believe Emily was going for just one image or the other, she is too talented of a writer to not recognize the ambiguity of her writing and thus, I believe, she was open to the possibility of many readings. The idea of Death is typically one that is frightening and is not something we like to think about, so it’s not unreasonable that someone might, in a moment of weakness when faced with a resident of that eternal “Village” to beg that they take someone else and not us. Granted, that sounds cowardly, but it’s easy to sound heroic than actually be heroic.