Emily wrote this (letter 868) for a grieving Sue when her son, Gilbert died at around age 8 or 9. However, the poem itself seems to be addressed to Gilbert who she says as passed “Pangless” to the “Light” unlike the rest of us who “slowly ford the” sorrowful river of life which he merely “leaped across”. Yet though she celebrates him you can feel the sorrow at watching him go.
The letter Emily wrote to Sue is worth considering when reading this poem:
Dear Sue –
The Vision of Immortal Life has been fulfilled –
How simply at the last the Fathom comes! The Passenger and not the Sea, we find surprises us –
Gilbert rejoiced in Secrets –
His Life was panting with them – With what menace of Light he cried “Dont tell, Aunt Emily”! Now my ascended Playmate must instruct me. Show us, prattling Preceptor, but the way to thee!
He knew no niggard moment – His Life was full of Boon –
The Playthings of the Dervish were not so wild as his –
No Crescent was this Creature – He traveled from the Full –
Such soar, but never set –
I see him in the Star, and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies – His Life was like the Bugle, which winds itself away, his Elegy an Echo – his Requiem Ecstacy –
Dawn and Meridian in one.
Wherefore would he wait, wronged only of Night, which he left for us –
Without a speculation, our little Ajax spans the whole –
Pass to thy Rendezvous of Light,
Pangless except for us –
Who slowly ford the Mystery
Which thou hast leaped across!
What stands out, at least at first, is she refers to Gilbert as “our little Ajax”. On my first reading I assumed she meant the great strong-man hero of the Iliad who vies with Odysseus for Achilles armor, however taking into account the words “Fathom” and “sea” as well as her use of “ford” in the poem, I think she could also be making a comparison to the younger Ajax who died at sea, though he had so incurred the wrath of the gods that I doubt his death would have been “Pangless”. Thus Emily could be drawing on the image Ajax the elder’s great strength, or this could even have just been a pet name for the boy whom she describes as full of energy as he leaps across the river the separates mortal life from the next world.
In fact, both the poem and the letter are filled with images of energy and boundless life such as “leaped” (in the poem) as well as “Dervish”, “soar”, “velocity’, “flies”, and “winds” which serves double duty as an image of the wind as well as the sad music of the “Bugle” as the funeral notes “wind” away into the “wind”. Emily converts his energy into music which then is carried on the currents towards heaven which she describes as “an Elegy in Echo” and a “Requiem”.
This is Emily’s brilliance as a poet in that she is able to both celebrate and illustrate the life of someone she loves while also expressing her sadness and grief at the same time. The image of the poem is firmly rooted on the bank of our side of the river as we watch little Gilbert leap across and leave us behind. While he enjoys eternity, we must continue to suffer in the rapids of our sorrowful lives full of pain and grief. Gilbert does not even look back, his final action is one of leaping as if he is like the subject in an ancient Greek fresco which depicts some great hero in mid action and thus his energy is immortalized in a work of art while we can only stand by as a passive and grieving audience to his glory.
This action also has the effect of Gilbert never looking back at life, as if he has left everyone behind and will not spend even a moment considering his previous life. The action of life moves only forward, like a river and so while we grieve the deceased, they do not grieve us, they do not even consider us because soon enough we too will join them when we have forded the great river of sorrows and join them in eternal action on the far shore.