A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Death is potential to that Man’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Death is potential to that Man’ is one of many poems Emily Dickinson wrote about death – or Death, for the Grim Reaper lurks behind Dickinson’s trademark capitalisations. Here is ‘Death is potential to that Man’ along with some words of analysis.

Death is potential to that Man
Who dies — and to his friend —
Beyond that — unconspicuous
To Anyone but God —

Of these Two — God remembers
The longest — for the friend —
Is integral — and therefore
Itself dissolved — of God —

‘Death is potential to that Man’ is a short poem, but even by Emily Dickinson’s standards it manages to become opaque within eight short lines. What does it all mean?

In summary, Dickinson is making the argument that death is only of potential significance to a man who is dying, and to his friend who experiences grief at his death.

We may feel as though the death of a much-loved friend is of cosmic importance, but the truth is that outside of that friend’s close circle of family and friends, the world is untouched by it, because everyone else is unaware of it. Only God knows. And of these two people who are aware of a man’s death – his friend, and God – God remembers the man’s death longer than the friend, because the friend is destined to follow the dying man, and will die too. Only God remains for eternity.

That’s how ‘Death is potential to that Man’ might be summarised. But what makes the poem a difficult one to interpret and understand is Dickinson’s odd word-choices.

‘Potential’ in that first line is a barrier, for one: she seems to be recalling the link between ‘potential’ and ‘potent’, or powerful. Death is only powerful to the man who is dying, and to his friend who witnesses his death, and to God, who witnesses everything.

Similarly, ‘integral’ creates further problems in that second stanza: Dickinson’s point appears to be that the friend is mortal (unlike God), but given its suggestion of wholeness, ‘integral’ seems more apposite in relation to God than the human friend who will die (and disintegrate, if anything).

The clue seems to lie in the lines that follow:

the friend —
Is integral — and therefore
Itself dissolved — of God —

The friend is ‘integral’ because he is a part of something greater: God. As God is in everything, God is always destined to remember things longer than a mortal man will, because the mortal man is but part of God, and is destined to dissolve back into God. So, this helps to make sense of that puzzling second stanza.

So much for ‘Death is potential to that Man’: a puzzling little poem, and not one of Emily Dickinson’s greatest. She wrote a great deal about death, and here she appears to be urging us to view God as greater than our human friends, and more important.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t place significance on our friends, merely that they – like us – are, for Dickinson, part of something greater, that has a longer memory.

One Comment

  1. thanks for this – learned and enjoyed