Text of the Poem

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me


So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Footnotes

  1. The final two lines can be read as revealing the rush of conflicting emotions felt in the process of loss and grief. “Heaven” and “hell” serve as figures for the speaker’s contrasting interior states. Loss, or “parting,” offers glimpses of heaven through the intense feelings of love for the lost person. It is also a hellishly painful experience, and thus “all we need of hell.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. In the penultimate line, the speaker approaches the mystery of death and reaches an epistemological roadblock. All the speaker can know of the afterlife is through “parting,” experiencing the death of a loved one. The death of another, however, does not reveal the existence of heaven or an afterlife. Thus, it is “all we know of heaven,” but still not enough. The inability to understand the nature of death and the afterlife surely contributes to the “hell” of loss alluded to in the final line.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The word “hopeless” works on two registers. According to the poem’s syntax, the adjective is ascribed to the “third event.” The next event is “hopeless to conceive”: the speaker anticipates, but cannot truly predict, another tragic occurrence. Despite the syntax, the word more accurately applies to the speaker, who experiences hopelessness in the memory of past grief and the certainty of grief yet to come.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The word “unveil” suggests that the speaker holds a passive perspective. Life’s events are to be “unveil[ed],” rather than chosen through acts of will. There is a sense of fate, as if the occasions of one’s life already exist, waiting only to be revealed.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. In this instance, “Immortality” refers not to a fanciful idea of endless life, but rather to the continued staving off of death. “Immortality” here means “not yet dying.” From this perspective, the speaker wonders whether the remaining stretch of life will be punctuated by another trauma.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. “Remains” can be read in several different ways. On one level, the line is a derivation of the old figure of speech, “It remains to be seen.” In this saying, the word “It” is nonspecific. In this poem, however, “It” refers back to “My life.” The suggestion then is that the speaker’s life “remains,” or continues on, only in order “to see” if a third event will arise. The word “remains” also refers to a corpse, an important connotation here. By subtly referring to “My life” as “remains,” the speaker acknowledges the two deaths already experienced.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The speaker alludes to two metaphorical deaths that have elapsed. From its start, the poem is intensely conscious of mortality, referring to the end of the speaker’s life—“its close”—well before the event. The nature of these deaths is not specified, but we can assume they are instances of great loss: deaths or departures of loved ones. The impact of grief and tragedy on one’s life is the poem’s central theme.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. As with many of Dickinson's poems, death is a central motif.  Here, Dickinson uncharacteristically acknowledges the possibility of a pleasant afterlife, which is, at the same time, capable of inflicting pain for the one who is left behind.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. Because Dickinson is specific about the number of presumably traumatic events she writes about here, this poem fairly shouts for biographical information--of which there is none that we can reasonably identify.

    — Stephen Holliday