A critical reading of a short Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.’ This statement has become almost proverbial, and the sentiment is centuries old, but it was Emily Dickinson (1830-86) who gave the thought this particular wording. ‘That it will never come again’ is poem 1741 in Emily Dickinson’s wonderful (and very thick!) volume of Complete Poems; we include the poem below, along with a few words of analysis.
That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.
That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate —
This instigates an appetite
This poem does not present the same level of ambiguity or mystery as many of Emily Dickinson’s best-loved poems, but a little analysis of the poem’s language and effects may help to pinpoint why it is so well-loved by Dickinson’s readers.
In summary, Dickinson argues that the fact that we get just one life is what makes our time on earth worth treasuring. Being cajoled or gulled into believing something when, deep down, we know or suspect it to be a lie – such as a belief in an afterlife – doesn’t help to make this world more exciting or exhilarating, partly because we know we’re kidding ourselves, and partly because this belief shifts our focus onto the afterlife and away from the life we have here and now. Dickinson is probably not attacking honest belief here, merely the sort of argument put forward in Pascal’s wager, for instance, about believing for the same of it, as a way of hedging one’s beliefs – of saying prayers with one’s fingers crossed behind one’s back, if you like.
The second of the poem’s two stanzas continues this argument. ‘An ablative estate’ refers to ablation, a surgical operation involving the removal of body tissue; in other words, something which heals us but also involves losing a part of ourselves. The concluding lines also call for a word or two of commentary:
This instigates an appetite
Dickinson seems to be suggesting here that, if we do manage to convince ourselves that our existence does not end with death, and that we will live again in another life (e.g. in heaven), this doesn’t help us to enjoy this life: quite the opposite. Instead, we are tempted to treat this life as a mere warm-up to the main event, the (heavenly) life to come. We cease to appreciate this world as much as we might, and instead become impatient to reach the next one.
The essential message of Dickinson’s poem is really found in that opening line, or rather pair of lines: ‘That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.’ If we have just one life, why waste it?
Continue to explore Dickinson’s poetry with these classic poems: ‘Because I could not stop for Death‘, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain‘, and ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun‘. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.