A summary of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘My life closed twice before its close’ is one of Emily Dickinson’s finest short poems. In just two quatrains, Dickinson ponders immortality and the concept of an afterlife by posing a first line which doubles up as a riddle. How can one’s life close twice before it … closes? What does she mean? The poem is worth analysing more closely because of this puzzling enigma.
My life closed twice before its close –
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
As with many of Emily Dickinson’s greatest poems, it’s impossible to pin down her poetry to one monolithic analysis or interpretation, and a critic who sought to do so would run the risk of destroying the subtle beauty of the language Dickinson uses, couched in abstractions and vague ambiguities as it often is. ‘My life closed twice before its close’ is no exception. The rest of the poem, however, does allow us to shed some light on this memorable opening line. Given that we can assume that the second ‘close’ mentioned in that opening line is a reference to Dickinson’s own (imagined) death, which ‘yet remains’ to come, we can infer with some confidence that the two previous occasions when her ‘life closed’ involved the deaths of other people – loved ones, perhaps. (There are numerous people whom Emily Dickinson had known and who had died by the probably composition date of ‘My life closed twice’, which is one of the last poems in Dickinson’s manuscripts. Judge Otis Phillips Lord, with whom Dickinson appears to have shared a passionate correspondence and friendship, had died in 1884, two years before Dickinson herself died.)
With this analysis of the poem in line, we might paraphrase it as follows: ‘Before I have even died myself, I have known the deaths of two people who meant so much to me that their deaths led, in a small way, to my own, by robbing my life of its vitality. It remains to be seen whether there is an afterlife, and it’s such a vast and ungraspable concept that it’s futile to try to imagine it. Other people’s deaths are the only way we gain access to heaven, and (thankfully) the only way we can learn of hell, until we ourselves die.’
Those last two lines, which read like a sort of unspecific Miltonic allusion, are intriguing, since they appear to suggest that we gain some sense of what heaven is like, and also what hell is like, by contemplating the deaths of those close to us. Their deaths are ‘all we know’ of the afterlife, because somehow the visceral experience of losing somebody close to us allows us to gain some brief insight into what an afterlife, whether good or bad, might be like. Otherwise, we cannot conceive of such a thing. In a sense, this is a darker and more elliptical version of John Donne’s famous lines in his sermon:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Through the deaths of those close to her, had Emily Dickinson felt that she had gained some terrible (or wonderful) insight into what awaited her, so soon after she penned this lines? Such a biographical analysis of ‘My life closed twice’ must inevitably reach a dead end. But then would death be an ‘end’, or a ‘close’? Dickinson could not choose but wonder at what the veil concealed from view.
Discover more of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry with the glorious (and gloriously thick!) Complete Poems. You might also enjoy our analysis of her classic poem ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ and her poem about madness, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’.
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.