‘The Last Night that She Lived’ is a poem by Emily Dickinson in which she reflects upon the last moments of a person from the perspective of the observer. The poem is set on the last night of a woman’s life. It is divided into seven stanzas.
The Last Night that She Lived: Summary
The poet begins by stating that the night of the death was like any other night, but due to the impending death, the natural surroundings appeared different. The impending loss seemed to heighten the senses of the poet and the other observers. They felt a great light upon their minds, which allowed them to notice even the smallest things in their surroundings. Just like an italicized word is more noticeable in a text, the small details seemed equally noticeable.
As the poet and her companions traveled between the room where the dying woman was and the other rooms of the house, she felt as if she was being blamed for the fact that while the woman would die soon, the rest of them would continue to live.
The poet felt jealous of the dying woman. The jealousy stemmed from the fact that she was escaping the complexities and challenges of existence. In contrast, the others would have to continue with their lives and the associated guilt of continued existence. The poet felt a ‘nearly infinite’ amount of jealousy. The poet, along with her companions, waited as the dying woman took her final few breaths. The time seemed constrained. It was as if their souls jostled in that constrained time. They all kept silent.
Finally, death arrived. The woman took her final breath; perhaps she also said her few final words before going silent. A reed bent to the water occasionally shivers with the water’s movement. Similarly, the woman too shivered like a reed in her final moment and died. After the death, the poet and her fellow observers arranged the dead woman’s hair and set her head in an erect position. After that, they had a painful wait as they reflected upon the sad event.
The Last Night that She Lived: Analysis
‘The Last Night That She Lived’ is another of Dickinson’s poems that explores the theme of death and loss. Having seen loss from close quarters several times in her life, the poet knew very well how it felt to be a witness to the death of a loved one. She writes this poem from the perspective of a witness to the last moments of a dying woman.
The tone of the first few lines borders on the dispassionate. Dickinson coolly remarks that it was an ordinary night, just like any other night. Almost as an afterthought, she adds ‘Except the Dying.’ However, over the next few lines, the words start to reflect the emotions in the narrator’s heart. The death made ‘nature different,’ she remarks and elaborates upon it in the next stanza.
The final moments of the woman created a sense of tension among her family and well-wishers who were by her side. The moments were very emotionally charged. The power in those moments allowed the observers to gain new perspectives on everything around them. They saw regular things in a new light. Small things that they had overlooked before now stood out, like italicized words. The poet refers to the ‘great light upon their minds.’ This light is the poet’s way of describing the heightened awareness that the family members of the dying woman felt at that time. The poet has made a very pertinent observation in this stanza. Moments of emotional stress often allow us to look at the world around us in greater detail.
In the next stanza, the poet touches upon feelings of guilt. The concept of ‘room’ here could be extended to refer to the world of the living and the world of the dead. As the poet and her companions traveled to and fro across these ‘rooms,’ the poet felt survivor’s guilt at being able to continue living while the woman would soon be dead. She felt a sense of being blamed by the universe for continuing to live.
The poet also discusses her feelings of jealousy towards the dying woman. Dickinson observes that the dying woman would soon exit the world of the living. She would have no more worries or responsibilities that come with life. Others would have to continue in the world of the living. They would have to deal with worldly worries and responsibilities. The family members of the dying woman would also have to deal with the pain of loss and the associated survivor’s guilt. The dying woman would soon be able to escape all that. Knowing this made the poet jealous.
The poet then takes us to the final moments of the dying woman. They observed the woman as she took her final breath. Time seemed to be constricted— the poet’s way of describing the pain and emotional stress that they were feeling. The poet continues with the metaphor in the next line. The souls of the observers jostled in the ‘’narrow time’ and were unable to speak. The poet is referring here to the grief that all the observers felt. The grief made them absolutely silent. Finally, the woman took her final breath.
Just like a reed bent to the water surface, the lady shivered and was dead. The poet also adds the word ‘consented.’ By this, she creates an image of the dying woman finally agreeing to let Death lead her away from the land of the living.
The woman’s final struggles had disarrayed her hair and tilted her head. After her death, the woman’s family arranged her hair and positioned her head properly. After that, they were left to reflect upon the event. The poet calls it an ‘awful leisure’ because although they had, they had nothing to do; now that the woman had breathed her last, it was leisure filled with sorrow. They spent that ‘awful leisure’ by coming to terms with their situation, described by the poet as ‘our belief to regulate.’ It was as if the poet and the rest of the woman’s family members were trying to tune themselves to the new reality. I hope you found the summary and analysis of ‘The Last Night that She Lived’ helpful and worth sharing.
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