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Analysis of Poem "Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers" by Emily Dickinson

Updated on June 7, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson | Source

Emily Dickinson and Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers is a poem that focuses on the resurrection of those who have led humble christian lives. It has strong religious and natural imagery and contains Emily Dickinson's trademark simple yet sophisticated hidden messages of irony and intuitive observation.

The history behind this poem needs to be explained because there are several different versions. Emily Dickinson altered the lines to the original following her dialogue, via letter, with Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-law, who advised changes to the second stanza. The year was 1859.

So, the version that was first published in the Springfield Daily Republican newspaper in 1862 was this revised work, with a different title, The Sleeping. It was two stanzas in length and the second stanza has references to the birds and the bees and laughter of the breeze.

A later version, published in 1890, retains the original first stanza but has a completely different second stanza. Emily Dickinson sent this modified poem to Thomas W. Higginson, literary critic, who helped publish her poems after her death.

  • A third version was published in the 1890 book Poems ( Higginson and Loomis Todd) and has three stanzas. The following analysis is based on this version.

Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers is one of Emily Dickinson's religiously controversial poems, not least because she was brought up in a Puritan family and was expected to follow the strict interpretation of all biblical matters, especially with regards the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It seems that, through her poems, she was able to express an alternative viewpoint, one that asked questions of the Puritan approach to nature, life and death.

Summary of Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

The humble christian dead lie sleeping, a cover of satin as well as a tombstone above them. They know nothing of the day or night, they have left time behind but the world goes on. Nature continues in its procreative way - the birds and bees are busy - but the dead are oblivious. The world is turning still, rulers and leaders lose wealth and power and here lie the cold and resurrected, undisturbed by such earthly matters.

Analysis of Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers is a lyric poem with occasional end rhyme and a mix of meter (metre in UK), iambic, spondaic and trochaic. On the page it appears orderly and regular, a reflection of a neat, simply marked out graveyard. Internally, the situation is more complex.

  • For example, note line 7:

Pipe the / sweet birds / in ig / norant cadence, -

This line has been inverted, so the verb comes first, to strengthen the poetic effect metrically. There is a trochee then a spondee followed by an iamb and an anapaest, which rises at the end, bringing anticipation.

Other inverted lines (5.6.7 and 9 in total) allow for better sounds and more appropriate, balanced stresses.

The syntax - the way clauses and sentences are formed - is unusual in that there is no enjambment where lines flow into one another without punctuation. Some lines end with a dash, others in a semi-colon or comma, indicating a pause for the reader.

  • All of this is typical Emily Dickinson - short lines conveying a strong image or message, nothing easily given away. Little wonder when this quote from another of her poems is considered:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant -

Success in circuit lies.

So she is suggesting that going about things in a roundabout way, not straightforwardly, gets best results. Use of metaphor, simile and symbol all help offset the truth.

  • Some of the words need defining:

alabaster - a white translucent gypsum stone often used for religious sculpture and tombstones.

meek - humble, gentle.

resurrection - the rising of the dead at the last Judgement.

rafter - wooden roof beam.

stolid - impassive.

cadence - rhythm, beat.

sagacity - wisdom, judgement.

firmaments - heavens, skies.

Diadems - jewelled crowns.

Doges - elected leaders of Venice (up to 1797) and Genoa (up to 1805).

Irony in Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

From the opening word of this poem there are ambiguities that pose a challenge. Why are these meek christians safe in their chambers - tombs - are they now out of danger of sin and ready to rise again, pure, like their lord Jesus? The meek shall inherit the earth so the beatitude goes, but all these people get is an ironic hint at their lack of wisdom and judgement. Nature somehow mocks them; absent are the spiritual laws of God. The cosmic processes go on;power wanes, is insignificant.

Further Analysis

Rhyme

There are obvious full end rhymes in this poem which help to bind the lines together and make it easier to remember. Note noon/stone (half rhyme) in the first stanza, ear/here in the second and row/snow in the last.

Near rhyme connects with alliteration and assonance and sibilance to further enhance the overall texture of sound:

Safe/Rafter/laughs.....alabaster chambers/castle.....Sleep the meek members/breeze/bee/sweet....roof/scoop....Diadems drop and Doges/Soundless as drops on a disk of snow.....Rafters of satin, and roof of stone.

This is a complex web of intertextual sounds that challenge the reader but also introduce a musical element.

Anaphora

The repeated use of Untouched in line two helps to reinforce the idea that the dead are in timeless zone and have no contact whatsoever with the rising sun, which is a symbol of Christ.

Metaphor

Chambers are bedrooms but the dead are in their tombstones? Chambers is a metaphor wherein the meek sleep. Sleep is strongly associated with death in the bible. "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep". I Corinthians 15:20.

Emily Dickinson must have known about this when she wrote in a letter to Abiah Root:

'some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping - sleeping the churchyard sleep -'

Metonymy

Diadems, jewelled crowns, represent all kings and rulers.

That Mysterious Last Line

Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

Poets and critics throughout the years have been scratching their heads in puzzlement over the last line of this poem. No one quite knows exactly what it means.

Some have declared it a purely poetic line; with mild sibilance and alliteration it has fascinating sounds but, in the end, it's simply an image observed by the poet one day as she walked through a winter churchyard.

In the context of the poem the last line could refer to the Diadems and Doges, the rulers and leaders, who silently relinquish their power as the cycles of time progress. Or the last line refers back to the previous three lines - the wealthy, the leaders, the cosmos, the orbiting planets - all are like dots (pinheads?) against a massive round universe, silently existing.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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