Taken from men — this morning

School Time, 1874, Winslow Homer
Background Image: School Time, 1874, Winslow Homer

I wonder if Emily had heard news of one of the local school children dying and this is the poem she wrote in remembrance of the little girl? What is unusual about this poem is she uses the word “Gods” and “kingdoms” (plural) rather than singular. I wonder if this is her way of expressing that our fate after death is not limited to just one possibility, but an eternity of possibilities?

The first stanza deals with the two sorts of taking that happens when someone dies. In the first line, Death is the one who has “taken” a life from “men” (humanity). The second line deals with the “men” who have “carried” the body to the grave to be buried. We don’t yet know whom has been taken, but we feel the sadness of the “men” when we read the line “in mourning” (mourning) enjambed into the next line “carried by men today” so that it can be read as the “men” carrying their mourning (“morning”). This simple enjambment creates the image of the funeral procession and the emotional quality of the people involved.

The third line is where the poem becomes more complicated because she uses the word “Gods”, not God, to describe who is the one that has “marshalled her away”. Though we now know the person how died is a “her”, it’s curious that we have two plural images: “Gods” and “banners”. The use of “marshalled” is also unusual in that it’s evokes military order as in the phrase marshaling the ranks into order.

While I do not know what Emily’s intent with the plural and militaristic language was, I get the (personal) impression that she is suggesting that this “one little maid” be ushered away from this mortal realm into the afterlife with as much honor as would be given a fallen and famous military hero. This “little [mind’s]” life is just as worthy as a soldier who served on the battlefield and so she should be given the same dignity and respect in death because all lives are precious and worthy of honor.

The other issue of the usage of plurals is that Emily might not be referring to multiple Gods, but that she is inside the minds of the “men” at the funeral and she is imagining how each of us has a different relationship and idea of what God might be. In Christianity there is only one God, but each person has a personal relationship with the God so for each person God is a unique and different being. Thus each person at the funeral is imagining a unique idea of what the afterlife will be like for this “little maid”.

The second stanza describes whom has died: “One little maid”, “One little mind” which describes the little girl, but as with lines 3 and 4 of the first stanza, lines 3 and 4 are unusual in their imagery. Here she describes not heaven, but rather Eden and she describes Eden as a sort of hotel or lodging that has no room left in it because “all the rooms are full”. Is she suggesting this is why humanity can’t go back to Eden because there is no room left? And if so, who then is occupying Eden in all these rooms? Yet she has combined this image with that of the “school” so she alludes to the afterlife as being like a school full of innocent children all sitting at their desks and there not being room for anyone else. Perhaps she is suggesting that humanity, when in Eden, is like a school full of children who are innocent of the reality of mortal life?

The final stanza begins with a play on ‘East of Eden’ (which is the Land of Nod where Cain was exiled to wander forever) and this relates to the image of Eden being full – full with perhaps the souls who deserve to remain in Eden / heaven, unlike Cain who is banished from God’s kingdom. Yet Emily is also describing a scene in which the “East” (morning) is far away from evening (“Even”) – a lot of time and space separates them – which perhaps she means as the gulf between life and death? And “Even” can also mean to make fair (make even) and death is the great leveler / evener of them all.

Finally, and once again, the final two lines of a stanza, shifts the image again, this time describing how when we (the “departed”) die we become “quaint” “Courtiers” in the kingdom of heaven, which she describes as the “Dim” “border star”. And once again she uses the plural “Kingdoms” rather than kingdom, once again suggesting, perhaps, that waiting for each of us is our own unique afterlife relationship with our personal God?

The final line is quite poignant in that she describes the “departed” as still existing by saying the “departed are”. She is suggesting that our loved ones are still vital and fulfilling a purpose (like a courtier), but that they have taken up residence elsewhere because they have crossed the great gulf between “morning” and “Even” (evening).

I admit to struggling with this poem; it’s not clear and obvious what she is suggesting with her word choice, but nothing in the poem feels out of place or poorly written – just obtuse. In fact the usage of plurals regarding the afterlife suggests a hint of uncertainty as to what awaits us after death – many “Kingdoms” and “Gods” can be imagined, and considering how many people and cultures there are in all of human history there are plenty of unique ideas about what awaits us after death.

After having read “Some, too fragile for winter winds“, I wonder if what she means by the many “Kingdoms” is that death itself is a kingdom? In that poem she describes death as “the thoughtful grave” and that God and Jesus did not notice the one who died, but death has been kind enough to not forget them.