While the subject of the poem is not terribly profound – where do the dead go? how far a distance between life and death? – it nevertheless expresses the anxiety she might have felt in dying and that the religion of her day doesn’t seem to offer much comfort or any answers. More interesting is that she uses natural imagery to express her wondering and in that the question is answered because it is nature to which we go.
The first stanza deals with the grave which, logically, is the first place we’d look for the dead since that is literally where the body is. Yet though the body might be there, Emily keeps digging in this stanza, she doesn’t stop at “the Grass and the Dirt”, she works her spade harder going past “the Beetle’s Cellar” and “the “Clover’s Root” until, having dug below where even the roots of plants can grow she stops since there is nothing physical beyond this point.
Her genius as a poet is clear with her image of an “Arm” stretching up out of the grave after having been digging around underground for awhile. This image is not just her own arm as she hefts herself out of her excavation, but it’s the image of the “Arm” of the person whom she is seeking and who has crawled away. And she combines this image of movement with units of time to suggest that what she is looking for has moved out of both space and time.
The third stanza is my favorite because it both illuminates the person she seeks with “Light” while also remaining mysterious as to where this person has gone. We can both see and not see where the dead go because they exist with the Forms now and can only intuit them, a theme we’ve seen in “The Poets light but Lamps“, and “I reckon – When I count at all“. She also evokes the image of how the ancient gods would place heroes in the night sky as the constellations with “Over the Cubit’s Head”. This line, though it references the unit of measure derived from the length of a person’s forearm, could be her describing Orion with his sword lifted over his “Head”. Thus whom she looks for has made the heroic journey to the next world and exists only as a memory made of light.
Thus the final stanza realizes that whom she is looking for cannot be found by us mortals because we do not posses the transport required to travel further “than Guess” or further “than Riddle”. Yet she is alluding to the ancient stories humanity has told about the afterlife and that these guesses and riddles could refer to the Bible, Homer, Native American lore, or any of humanity’s attempts to make sense of what happens when we die.
Yet the answer seems to be in the poem the entire time: the natural world. From the “Clover” and the “Beetle” to the “Light” of the stars and comets, we return back to the great engine of life which is nature. That much she can be certain even if she is unsure about where the spirit may go. But even the act of writing a poem is an act of spirituality in that a work of art can bridge the gap between us and the subject and that gap is jumped instantaneously without regard to space or time or any other limitations.