Literature

A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Future never spoke’

‘The Future never spoke –’: with these simple four words, Emily Dickinson begins one of her finest meditations on the unknowability of the future. Although ‘The Future never spoke’ does not present the challenges some of Dickinson’s more formidably cryptic poems pose, some words of analysis may nevertheless prove helpful.

The Future never spoke –
Nor will he like the Dumb
Reveal by sign – a Syllable
Of His Profound To Come –

But when the News be ripe
Presents it in the Act –
Forestalling Preparation –
Escape – or Substitute –

Indifferent to him –
The Dower – as the Doom –
His Office but to execute
Fate’s Telegram – to Him –

In summary, then: the future, personified in this poem as some form of sentient entity, refuses to reveal to us what is going to happen. Unlike the ‘Dumb’, i.e. humans without the power of speech, the Future refuses to use sign-language to communicate what is going to happen. Instead, it keeps shtum. Instead, it reveals what is going to happen ‘in the Act’ – as things are happening. Note Dickinson’s use of the word ‘Presents’ here, ostensibly meaning ‘lays something out for inspection’, but hinting at the idea that, as soon as the Future shows its hand, it is no longer the far-off future but the ‘Present’. In other words (to superimpose our own analogy onto Dickinson’s poem) the Future is like a clairvoyant who tells us the lottery numbers for this week’s draw just as they’re being announced on live TV. In other words, useless.

Because the Future only shows its hand when ‘Future’ has already become the present ‘Act’, we have no chance to prepare for what’s in store, either to escape our fate or to ‘Substitute’ or change our path. Neither ‘Dower’ (in figurative extended us, an endowment or windfall) nor ‘Doom’ (suggestive of the ultimate fate of us all, death) matters to the Future: it deals out whatever it must to each of us. Of course, both ‘Dower’ and ‘Doom’ are tinged by death, since the former is often used to describe the money a widow inherits after her husband’s death. And death hovers in that space between the penultimate and final line of the poem, in Dickinson’s masterly use of enjambment:

His Office but to execute
Fate’s Telegram – to Him –

The Future’s ‘Office’ or role is ‘but to execute’ … whom? But not whom, we realise, but what: the Future’s role is to carry out ‘Fate’s Telegram – to Him’. Because of Dickinson’s fondness for capitalising nouns, we cannot know whether ‘Him’ means a mortal man or immortal God. Usually, ‘He’ or ‘Him’ would suggest the latter, but the matter is made trickier because of Dickinson’s trademark capitalisations (see ‘Office’ and ‘Telegram’ for two more examples). Why would the Future be carrying a Telegram to God? Surely God would be the sender rather than recipient? Or should ‘Him’ be read as ‘Fate’?

Fate and God are linked in Dickinson’s theology because she was raised in a Calvinist family, and predestination is a central part of the Calvinist belief-system. Everyone is either saved or damned: it’s been foretold. This is important biographical context for ‘The Future never spoke’. It also explains why there is no ‘Escape’ or ‘Substitute’ possible for us: contrary to what Doc Brown tells Marty McFly, in Calvinism our futures – our ultimate futures – have already been written yet.

One Comment

  1. isabellacatolica

    Re him/Him and “to” in the last stanza: I suggest that it makes best sense to say that the first him (and “His”) refers to Future; the second Him, to God. Granted, the preposition “to” is then a little strained, but may indicate something like “a rendering of accounts” or a “reporting back” by Future to God, after Future has executed the instructions in Fate’s Telegram.

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