Analysis of Alabaster Chambers (1859 & 1861)
“Alabaster Chambers”, much like many of Emily Dickinson’s other works, showcases the theme of death without directly addressing the subject but instead guides the readers to the topic by means of the imagery. The first stanza of the original 1859 publication, depicts the illustration of the “meek members of the Resurrection” sleeping safely in their Alabaster Chambers, implying that they are protected from the progression, afflictions and joys that those in the living world must endure; though in their division from the living, they are also ignorant of the insignificance of their death as the natural world continues.
As Dickinson was raised in the Puritan tradition, she was familiar with the concept of death as a waiting period before resurrection into the afterlife and is perhaps questioning the Calvinist faith in which she was brought up or is possibly confident in this belief as she refers to the dead as “sleepers”, which signifies that they will awake and reinforces the Puritan belief in the ferrying of the faithful upon the Second Coming of Christ. The scene portrayed to the audience forces them to contemplate the possible inferred perspectives on Puritan beliefs by Dickinson- that though they consider themselves to be prepared for the eventuality of death with their “Alabaster Chambers”, “rafter of satin” and “Roof of stone”, it is inescapable and imminent. The “Alabaster Chambers” themselves are a clear reference to tombs as Alabaster alludes to gypsum or calcite (used in the making of tombs), a translucent white stone that Dickinson employs imagery of to evoke a feeling of something inert and everlasting as the image of death she is presenting.
Dickinson then goes on to declare that these sleepers are “Untouched by Morning” “And untouched by Noon-”. The dead do not have the regard for time that the living do, as they are severed from the manner that the living use to gauge the days (celestial bodies) and are instead held in darkness and are unaware of the continuation of the world outside of their tombs, as they are no longer apart of it. Morning symbolises hope and to state that the dead are untouched by morning pronounces their lack of it, as with morning comes light and in accordance with the Calvinist’s view of light as a tangible example of God’s grace, depicts that they are removed from His presence and workings. For the dead to be untouched by both Morning and Noon, the audience is left with the impression of the perished discarded in only darkness, enhancing the grim interpretation of death Dickinson is portraying.
This further affirms the evaluation that Dickinson is beginning to question and dispute her Calvinist belief and intentionally painted the dead as being held in perpetual darkness, though as she referred to them as “members of the Resurrection” we understand them to be worshippers that believed fervently in their ensuing salvation. This is a direct reference to the Bible passage in Matthew 5:5 which states that “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” upon the Rapture. The “Rafter of satin” may refer to a satin lining on the inside of the casket whilst the “Roof of stone” alludes to the tomb or tombstone itself. The repetition applied in the first stanza, particularly in the last two lines in which the harder literary technique contrasts against the softer impression of the prior 4 lines, further augments the reader’s impression of these “Chambers” being a region of timelessness and suspension. This response is reinforced by the deliberately situated dashes at the end of the first, second and fourth line that establish pauses and the gradual perusal of the piece.
In the second stanza, Dickinson endures to establish the luminous continuation of the natural world as a disparity against the bleak and inescapable impression of death left by the first stanza. Dickinson has personified the breeze as laughing and blithe in a “Castle above them-”, unaffected by the trivial goings of humanity, whether they be dead or alive. The light-heartedness of the laughing figure and Castle in the sun distinguishes firmly against the graveness of the deads’ endurance and the gloom of the tombs in which they are contained. The perennial existence of the natural world is indifferent to the finite life of a human being and is ultimately oblivious to their presence, much as the dead are unable to be disturbed by the movements of nature. If Dickinson was depicting nature are symbolic evidence of God’s presence and intervention, its indifference to the life and death of humanity divulges God’s own disregard to those who worship him so diligently.
Additionally, the dead are isolated from the elated sounds and goings of nature, as the continuous idle prattling of the “Bee” is lost on their “stolid Ear.” In comparison to intensity of nature they are lifeless, impassive and unable to be roused by the constancy of the world above them, in which they no longer reside. Dickinson may be implying that the carefree activity of nature flourishes due to it’s ignorance of the suffocating practices of the Calvinists’ that ultimately confines them and this is why the “sweet birds” pipe in “ignorant cadence”. They are heedless to the repression of the Calvinistic ways and it is this unawareness that allows them to sing sweetly. The final line of the poem, “Ah, what sagacity perished here!” signifies to the audience that Dickinson is becoming sceptical in the realism of an afterlife, instead hinting that the only eternity of the world is in the perpetuation of nature. Is she suggesting that the Calvinist neglect of nature and belief that it is unable to understand God is evidence of their own lack of wisdom and true comprehension of the divine? Her use of lighter literary approaches in the second stanza may be interpreted as Dickinson offering a consolation to the eternal dead considered in the first stanza or it could be that these pleasant images of life in nature are used to differentiate and heighten the lack of vigour in death. Though the piece appears to doubt the existence of an afterlife, it also seems to try to appease the fallen with the solace that though their lives have been inconsequential, the world and nature will go on- though it is important to note that Calvinists did not respect nature and perceived it as being inferior. They only saw humanity as being capable of the comprehension and understanding of God and hence would not have been pacified by the eternal natural world. Though the impression of death in this piece is chilling, it can be interpreted as offering hope in the prospect of the eternal vitality of nature, though the dead may be locked in the idleness of their chambers and ultimately unimportant.
Whereas Dickinson illustrates the dead as “(sleeping)” in the 1859 version of “Alabaster Chambers”, affirming that they are in a temporary slumber and will rise upon the Second Coming of Christ, in the 1861 variant she instead conveys that they “Lie” in their chambers. This harsher term conveys to the readership that Dickinson no longer believes in the resurrection of the dead or is at least more dubious of it than she was in previous years. The use of the term “sleep” in the original version signifies a desire for hope, that even if there is no afterlife, the natural world will continue in the absence of humanity but the altering of this to instead utilise “Lie” indicates a new lack of hope in Calvinistic beliefs and instead a conviction in the cosmic indifference to the coming and going of life. Additionally, another dash has been added to the second line to emphasise and force contemplation upon the reader of the lack of hope and light in the existence of the dead. The words “satin” and “stone” have also been capitalised to stress the impenetrability of death and compacted into a single line.
While the first version of the piece explores the nonchalant stance of nature in death, the second scrutinises not only the indifference of nature but also humanity and the Universe as a whole.
The last stanza portrays a “grand” passing of time “in the Crescent-above them-”, meaning the world of the living that the dead lie beneath, through reference to the crescent moon. The Universe continues on in it’s movements, making the momentous effect of death on a single person essentially worthless in it’s vastness. “Worlds scoop their Arcs”, meaning that planets continue on their orbits, unaffected by the significant developments of mankind and “Firmaments”, the heavens where God dwells, are similarly unaffected. Dickinson contrasts death with a cosmic, larger world that insists upon the paltriness of a single human life and even humanity itself- emphasising the ultimately pitiful lack of impression we leave on the world and the expanse of the cosmos in spite of mankind and even God. The mention of “Diadems” dropping and “Doges” surrendering signifies the mightiest of people and the eventual uselessness of their achievements and power upon their death. The diadems refer to Kings and Queens who rule over the lower class and the Doges as the previous rulers of Italy, who, despite their influence in life, will all die and fall into alignment with the importance of those they had overseen. Though we give titles and victories meaning in life, they are ultimately fruitless because in the end all people are made equal and “surrender” their triumphs- whether they are viewing from a religious perspective in which God sees all people as the same or from an objective understanding of the vastness of the Universe, which persists in the face of God and even the most tremendous of human milestones. Reigns have been ended and wars have been lost in this monumental passing of time but humanity is indifferent to the dead as they no longer have any affect on this world and the dead are similarly unmoved.
Dickinson utilised hard sounds in the final two lines of the stanza to heighten the impression of death as resolute and final. The final line, “Soundless as dots- on a Disc of Snow-” links back to and compounds the original imagery of white from the first line that is alluded from the white image of an alabaster stone. She describes each human life as being “soundless” to reiterate how inconsequential each life is, making but a meagre impact in the scheme of the cosmos, that is fundamentally unremarkable. It’s also vital to note that snow will melt, and so the effect of a person on the world will fade as time passes. The dash at the end of the concluding line coerces the reader to consider this. This final stanza forsakes the audience with a frigid image of death as utterly infinitesimal and bleak. The second version of “Alabaster Chambers” tells that even in death, the world perseveres and is unaffected, giving no hope to the reader, whereas the original eased this harshness with the alleviation that whilst they may not be immortal, the natural world is.
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