By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers’ is about one of Emily Dickinson’s favourite themes: death. But, as so often with an Emily Dickinson poem, her treatment of this perennial theme is far from straightforward.
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
And untouched by noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection –
Rafter of Satin – and Roof of Stone!
Grand go the Years – in the Crescent – above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop – and Doges – surrender –
Soundless as dots – on a Disk of Snow –
Above, we’ve reproduced the 1861 edition of ‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers’; an earlier version, from 1859, had slightly different wording.
The poem considers the dead, ‘safe’ in their ‘Alabaster Chambers’ or tombs; nothing can affect the dead, not the coming of morning or the heat of noon, nor the passing of years, the fall of kings or queens (‘Diadems – drop’ neatly suggesting the falling of a royal crown as a dynasty crumbles), or the surrender of ‘Doges’ (rulers of city-states like Venice).
These events make as little impact on the sleep of the dead as raindrops falling on snow.
All this makes perfectly good sense, of course. The dead are unconcerned with the passing of the day, or the seasons, or whole dynasties and changes of government.
But Emily Dickinson seems to be implying something else by saying that the dead are safe in their alabaster chambers: this idea suggests someone tucked up safely in bed, protected from the ravages of the outside world. The clue is provided in the line ‘Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection’.
The dead are ‘safe’ not just because they cannot be physically harmed, but because they are ready for the Resurrection, when – in Christian theology – the dead will rise from their tombs for the Last Judgement. The ‘Alabaster Chambers’, however, also imply wealth: these are the tombs of the rich, not some pauper’s grave.
The words Dickinson uses throughout the poem – ‘Grand’, ‘Diadems’, ‘Doges’ – similarly imply the well-to-do and aristocratic, summoning the idea of the wealthy leaving money in their wills when they die, for chaplains and others to say prayers for them in the afterlife, praying for their souls.
In other words, this poem is not just about the dead, but a certain class of dead, we might say. In this context, Dickinson’s word ‘meek’ (‘the meek members of the Resurrection’) is decidedly ironic: Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that the meek are blessed, because they will inherit the earth; but there is little that is ‘meek’ in the rich dead that inhabit those alabaster chambers.
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. You can discover more about her work with our analysis of her poems ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun‘, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, and ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass‘.