The story here is so sad that I almost don’t want to write about it. There is certainly a chapter in Emily’s biography that would explain it, the journalistic description that goes behind the poem. That is a devil on the wall, I don’t feel like sketching in, right now.
#795, c. 1863
Her final Summer was it —
And yet We guessed it not —
If tenderer industriousness
Pervaded Her, We thought
A further force of life
Developed from within —
When Death lit all the shortness up
It made the hurry plain —
We wondered at our blindness
When nothing was to see
But Her Carrara Guide post
At Our Stupidity —
When duller than our dullness
The Busy Darling lay —
So busy was she — finishing —
So Leisurely — were We —
I’d rather respond to the emotional content of the poem than the historical details. Emily’s sense of pure wonderment that Death could sneak up so quickly and without anyone noticing. Not that Death is so sneaky, but that she and everyone else could be so foolish as to forget that Death is ever near. Or so insensitive to the evidence of Death’s approach.
Emily is hard on herself, calls herself Blind and Stupid. The anger leaps out of these lines. No one pays attention to the shortness of life. No matter how many times we witness it, we continue to be astonished when it ends. Yes, Emily, we are idiots.
The last two lines twist into a new idea. “So busy was she — finishing —/ So leisurely — were we —” The one who is dying controls her own passage, it sounds like. She is finishing her own life, as if this was a work she had crafted on her own. Death is not an event or entity that works on her, while she is the passive recipient. She, the dying one, appears to have made the decision to die. She finishes what she had started, and didn’t tell anyone. Or if she did, Emily and the others didn’t pay attention.
The approach of Death progresses beneath conscious scrutiny until it can’t be ignored any longer. The main thing for Emily is the feeling that she wasted valuable time, not seeing and not being aware of the coming end.
The dying are always sharper and more alive than anyone else. The healthy ones are fat with contentment, their senses dulled by too much life. Death is the great clarifier or Teacher. Whatever you don’t know yet, Death will bring it to the foreground so you can’t miss it.
Thunder and lightning. Dark sky. Monday morning.