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Emily Dickinson's "Could live – did live"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant authentic image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant authentic image of the poet.

Introduction and Text of "Could live – did live"

In Emily Dickinson’s "Could live – did live," the speaker is speculating about the inner life of an individual who has died. Because she refers to the deceased as "he" and "his" in the lines, "Through faith in one he met not, / To introduce his soul," it is safe to assume that the individual is a man or boy—more likely a man because of the nature of the information offered by the speaker.

The dead man has experienced enough of life that the speaker, who has observed at least periodically the man living his life, has acquired and retained enough information to make certain assumptions about how he thought and felt and what his inclinations might have been.

As Dickinson is wont to do, in this poem, the poet is playing with English grammar. She is employing the conditional mood of verbs. In the opening two lines, she juxtaposes the conditional mood use with the indicative mood emphatic; thus, she moves from "could live" to "did live."

That the poet added her own emphasis to the emphatic "did" further highlights her play on the language. In modern print, the emphasis is shown by italicizing—"did"—while in her handwriting, Dickinson shows that emphasis by underlining–"did."

Could live – did live

Could live – did live –
Could die – did die –
Could smile upon the whole
Through faith in one he met not,
To introduce his soul.

Could go from scene familiar
To an untraversed spot –
Could contemplate the journey
With unpuzzled heart –

Such trust had one among us,
Among us not today –
We who saw the launching
Never sailed the Bay!

Reading of "Could live – did live"

Commentary

The speaker in this Dickinson gem is offering a somewhat clipped observation about the possible inner life of an individual male acquaintance who has died. She has observed at least enough of the individual’s comings and going that she remains capable of forming an opinion about him.

Interestingly, what the speaker claims about the possible inner life the another more than likely remains even more on target about her own station in life.

First Stanza: Conditional Speculation

Could live – did live –
Could die – did die –
Could smile upon the whole
Through faith in one he met not,
To introduce his soul.

The speaker begins by contrasting the difference between the conditional and the indicative moods. She states elliptically that someone had been able to live —"could"—but then adds immediately that he did, in fact, live. The first proposition is stated with the conditional mood auxiliary verb "could," and the second half of her statement features the emphatic form "did" of the indicative mood "live."

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In the second line, she repeats the conditional vs indicative moods again with the opposite of "live." Thus, she is reporting someone who could have lived, did, in fact, live, and then this same individual could have died—because he lived, of course—and he, in face, "did die."

By playing with the grammar of the language, the speaker indicates that her own solemn mood may be moving her to speculate and to postpone her grieving for this individual. But then she launches another conditional mood "could smile," as she reports the level of the deceased’s faith.

The deceased was able to smile upon the whole bewildering commotion of life and death likely remaining quite neutral about any deep meaning those puzzling acts might hold; he, at least, possessed some level of faith to be able to hold such a smile, and his soul thereby has remained an entity without dedication to a higher consciousness. The speaker, however, is merely reporting, not judging.

Second Stanza: Remaining Conditional

Could go from scene familiar
To an untraversed spot –
Could contemplate the journey
With unpuzzled heart –

Returning again to the conditional mood, the speaker continues to report on the deceased’s ability to face the various vicissitudes of life. His temperamental state seems to have remained somewhat evenminded whether he was moving in "familiar" territory or venturing out to parts unknown.

The speaker asserts that the deceased "could go" and was also able to "contemplate" his travels without his "heart" becoming puzzled, or likely even frazzled. The speaker is offering only her interpretation of how the deceased felt; thus, the continued employment of the conditional mood remains operative and most appropriate.

While her uncertainly is not paramount, she, nevertheless, does not wish to sound as though she can make any final pronouncement about how the deceased went about his life and his days upon planet Earth. She knows that too deep a speculation would ultimately amount to judging. She does imply that she likely would not retain such an evenminded ability throughout her puzzling sojourn through life and death.

Third Stanza: Trust and Faith in Life’s Inner Turmoil

Such trust had one among us,
Among us not today –
We who saw the launching
Never sailed the Bay!

The speaker finalizes her speculative evaluation of the deceased’s inner mental/heartfelt state by asserting that his trust, which did not rise to level of faith, was as she has thus far described. He was "among us" and today he is no longer "among us."

The speaker then concludes by remarking that although "we," the living, have been able to observe the manner in which the deceased passed his days, we cannot know for certain how his experienced actually shaped and formed his deep heart’s core and ultimate mental state.

While we may have observed, an observation is not the actual experience. The deceased is the only one who has "sailed the Bay; his friends, family, and acquaintances merely caught certain glimpses of his "launching." They remain in state of "should, would, could" as far as the deceased’s inner life is concerned.

The speaker offers an observation, however, that may be quite accurate, but in the long run, the accuracy is in her own self-revelation, not necessarily in that of the target of her report.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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