If I should die

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852, John Martin
Background Image: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852, John Martin

At first glance, this is a very funny poem, and it reminds me of Tom Toro’s famous New Yorker cartoon (Jan 30, 2015) where a businessman in a suit is sitting around a campfire with some children after civilization has collapsed and he’s explaining that while it’s unfortunate the world was destroyed, for a brief moment he helped create a lot of value for shareholders.

The footnote in my edition of Emily’s poems explains she wrote this a year after the Panic of 1857, a financial crisis that effected her father when Amherst’s railroad company went bankrupt. The poem is filled with the language of finance, such as “option”, “enterprise”, “stocks”, “Commerce”, “Trades” and she compares the industry of the “Birds” and the “Bees” with the “sprightly / Conduct” of “gentlemen” who keep the financial institutions afloat.

My first reading of the poem picked up on a surface level of cynicism in which she is juxtaposing the industry of nature with the money chasing of human business which doesn’t actually produce anything. Emily ascribes to nature the value of a bird building, a bee bustling, and the sun beaming and burning, while she ascribes to “gentlemen” the act of “Trades” flying and “Commerce” continuing. At first glance it appears she is valuing nature over earthly affairs which will come to end once we “die”.

She also writes two unusual lines in the middle of the poem, “One might depart at option / From enterprise below” which separates the natural imagery above with the worldly business below. An option, in financial terms, is an agreement for the right (not the obligation) to buy (or sell) something at a future time for a set and predetermined price. For example, if Emily were writing today and a film producer wanted to turn her poems into a film, the producer could option her work for the right to do so. Yet in this poem she seems to be comparing the right to option stocks with our own souls.

Her line “enterprise below” alludes to what happens to us when we die: we go into the ground and, perhaps onto an afterlife, but it also directly points to the lines that are written literally “below” this one in the poem. And she uses the “option” in reference to when a person will “depart” this world, as if someone has bought the option to our souls and on a day of their choosing they come to collect.

Thus she is comparing life to a transaction in the stock market of life, and on my subsequent readings of the poem I felt she wasn’t being purely cynical about “gentlemen” wasting their time with ephemeral affairs that hold no real value (though that does exist here since she relates “below” to death as well as finance), but that she is also saying that the industry of humanity is that of finance and options just as much as the “Bees” and the “Birds” have their own work to do which, one day, will also be forgotten when they die. Yet life will go on after we no longer are alive. Our descendants will continue to busy themselves with earthly affairs while we, in our graves with our “Daisies” go on about the business of being dead. In other words, it’s all relative.

And I also don’t think Emily would have been as cynical as to think the financial opportunities her father was involved in were time wasted – she, and the rest of her family would depend on that money to live and thrive, and besides, these affairs wold have been important to her father so I doubt her relationship with economics would have been simply cynical or her attitude towards her father’s loss in the railroad company simply as her not caring about him or it.

What I think she is trying to say is that we should have some perspective on life. While alive we, like the “Bees” must get on with our affairs, even if it is as silly as buying and selling “options”, but that we should remember that these affairs will only be important to us for the brief time we are alive and that the “enterprise below” will then be important to us when we leave this mortal realm.