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Dickinson's The Last Night that She Lived presents a meditation on the reaction of the speaker and those with her while they are confronted with the death of a female friend. Strangely, in dealing with the subject of death, Dickinson steers away from the metaphysical aspect of such a heavy situation and remains firmly anchored in the tangible world. The speaker makes no references to God or the afterlife, and her allusions to nature are fleeting. The poem is anything but an attempted justification of the death of her friend, rather it is resembles a catalogue of the human responses of those who remain in the earthly realm after the death of a loved one.
The Last Night that She Lived
by Emily Dickinson
The last Night that She Lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying--this to Us
Made Nature different
We noticed smallest things--
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms were Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame
That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite--
We waited while She passes--
It was a narrow time--
Too jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.
She mentioned, and forgot--
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce--
Consented, and was dead--
And We-We placed the Hair--
And drew the Head erect--
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate--
It is noted immediately that nothing spectacular is taking place within the speaker's natural surroundings in response to the situation. The universe has not paused for the departing soul of a woman, or those left behind. It is clear from the first lines that the Dickinson will make no leaps to paint nature as an intelligible or responsive force.
The speaker is all too aware that it is the confrontation with the death of a loved one that causes "Those to be alive" to view their surroundings with a different slant. The event of death has jarred them into a state of heightened awareness. Previously inevident things; "smallest things" have been brought into focus. It is not the world that has changed, but their perception of it.
It is also important to note that the speaker refers to "Us". For the remainder of the poem she will only refer to herself as part of a collective. The word "I" is absent from the poem.
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The living respond to the situation with a feeling of unfairness. As they move between the room encasing her deathbed and the "Rooms where Those to be alive tomorrow were" it is as if they are moving between two contrasting worlds. Although the woman is not yet dead, there is already a sense of distinct separation. Her close and certain death has placed her in a state of limbo, wavering between two juxtaposing realms. The finality of this premature separation, made increasingly vivid as they move between the two different kinds of rooms, evokes a brand of quiet anger towards what seems an unjust situation.
Dickinson seems to strip away theological and universal pondering to concentrate on the most basic emotions of those effected. The speaker addresses the fact that there is a feeling of jealousy; but it is unspecified as to who or where this anger is directed. Why had this women been marked for death while others lived on; they are feeling cheated in some way? Dickinson is not compelled to intellectualize within the poem as to which force it is that these people are addressing,What is important, whether logical or not, is what the speaker and those afflicted with the same events feel in response to the same situation.
The characters sit in quiet helplessness as they are unable to liberate their friend from the grasp of an inevitable death. Their worlds have been jolted out of their normal state, and their souls are in such a state of upheaval, that they have lost the ability to speak. As their primary action is waiting, their collective response is a heightened awareness of time.
Dickinson consciously utilizes a simile instead of an all out metaphor because she does not wish to shift the focus from the humans in the poem to nature. Thus, she maintains the barrier status of a comparison. A contrast must remain, lest the two subjects become synonymous. The living compare death to something as equally unfathomable; nature. Even when symbols of nature are directly used, they are personified. They are tools for the description of a human death used by those witnessing the event.
The last stanza reveals that the ordeal is finished for the dying woman, she has passed on. But it is not finished for the living who are at a loss of how to respond to something so final. They do what is customary by placing the hair and the head. After that, however, they are left alone with their thoughts. It can be ascertained that these thoughts are none to pleasant by the use of "awful".
It is essential to the ultimate objective of the poem that the speaker offers no words of closure or reconciliation; she simply states what they did. Even after the death, the speaker speaks of no comtemplations of the afterlife. The personality of the dead women remains unrevealed. The poem is about the response of the living as their loved one lay dying and now that the death impending death has been completed so has the poem.