The Duality of Sex and Death in Dickinson’s Poem 829, “Ample make this Bed -”

In poem 829, “Ample make this Bed -,” Dickinson uses the imagery of sex and burial to express how life and death are inextricably connected to each other.

To begin to understand “Ample make this Bed -,” first we must look at the meaning of the poem.  The first two lines establish the scene: “Ample make this bed – / Make this Bed with Awe -” (1-2).  Here, Dickinson uses simple words that give the reader a sense that the speaker is creating a comfortable place to repose.  The reason for making such a place “with Awe” is that the speaker intends to stay in the bed until “Judgment break” (3), which is an allusion to the resurrection of the dead referenced in the Bible (1 Corinthians 15: 42-44).  The last line of the first stanza, “Excellent and fair” (4), is both a reference to the “Judgment” (3), as well as the state that the bed should exist.  In short, the first stanza is about how to make a suitable place to sleep.

The second stanza gives us more simple instructions on how to make this bed.  Lines 5 and 6 detail the mattress and the pillow.  “Be its Mattress straight / Be its Pillow round” (5-6) provide details that should be obvious to the reader, but the exactness of a “straight” mattress and a “round” pillow expresses how perfect this bed should be.  Finally, the speaker sets the environment for the bed in “Let no Sunrise yellow noise / Interrupt this Ground” (7-8).  These lines give the reader a sense of darkness that is easily understood as a private place.  The “yellow noise” (7), or sunlight, is supposed to be shutout so that it does not “Interrupt” (8) those who will rest in this bed.

Throughout the poem, Dickinson uses simple, easy-to-understand words and imagery which the reader is quite familiar with.  However, these simple figures of speech are highly suggestive.  The use of the bed as the setting for the poem is particularly suggestive, especially when coupled with the word “Ample” (1) in the first line.  While the reader is likely to think of death and coffins as a bed or resting place, the use of “ample” suggests life and sexuality, making the reader uneasy with a simple literal reading of the poem as simply “death.”  The “Awe” in line 2 also easily suggests both the “awe” of life and the “awe” of death, keeping the reader aware of both death and birth.  The use of the adjectives “straight” (5) and “round” (6) to describe a “Mattress” (5) and a “Pillow” (6) also highlight the duality of life and deaths by means of contrast, but the presence of both within the bed, again, show the symbiotic nature between the two phenomena.  Thus, Dickinson never lets the reader settle on one interpretation, instead keeping the cycle of birth and rebirth at the forefront of the poem.

The beauty of Dickinson’s interplay between life and death come in the subtlety of the meter.  The author uses trochaic trimeter for the majority of the poem, but she varies the structure in lines 3 and 7 with the use of trimeter and a 2nd spondaic foot.  The predominant use of trochees read as if the speaker is “trailing off,” beginning a sound with a strong stress and slowly fading away, which brings to mind death, simply slipping away into the nether.  However, this also can be construed as the creating of life.  In addition to a “fading away,” there is a “thrusting” and “pulling away” motion in each foot which also mimics the physical act of sex.  The initial force of the stressed syllable followed by the softness of the unstressed syllable is suggestive of two typically opposite experiences.

Meanwhile, the two spondees in “wait till” (3) and “Sunrise” (7) make the reader pause and consider the line more carefully.  “[W]ait til” (3) makes use of the spondee to create a halting motion, to make the reader pause within the bed just a little longer, which imitates the speaker’s desire to remain in the bed until “Judgment break” (3).  “Sunrise” (7) uses the spondee in a similar manner, making the reader pause, but it also illustrates the rising sun.  In each line, the extended length and pause also intimate a sense of danger.  Dickinson’s use of imperative commands, “In it wait” (3) and “Let no” (7), alert the reader to some danger, something that may bring about the next cycle of either birth or death.  Dickinson’s use of these cautionary devices implies the finality of both birth and death.

How the author best exemplifies the relationship between birth and death is through the use of the masculine ending and the rhyme scheme.  The masculine endings, the extra stressed syllable, provide a strong ending to each line.  This is particularly notable in lines 3 and 7 where, as mentioned above, there is an imperative statement and the masculine ending carries a sense of authority.  Each line is, therefore, presented as a strong, independent statement, but each ending is “reborn” with the next line’s trochee.  By beginning and ending each line with a stressed syllable, Dickinson marries each line to the next, demonstrating how stress begets stress, or death begets life.

The single use of rhyme in “Ample make this Bed –” occurs in the last stanza.  The use of this perfect rhyme between “Round” (6) and “Ground” (8), both of which are also capitalized for further emphasis, functions like a perfect cadence, giving the reader’s ear something satisfying and final with which to end.  The absence of rhyme in the first stanza further emphasizes the finality of the second stanza.   By allowing the reader to progress unhindered by any closure or symmetry, Dickinson carries him or her through the life cycle until faced with an obvious ending, the “death” of her poem.  In kind, both the masculine ending and the perfect rhyme represent the finality and relationship between birth and death.

 

 (I apologize for how the copy/paste translates the stress marks)

Poem 829, “Ample make this Bed -”

Trochaic Trimeter with truncated unaccented syllables in the third foot; Lines 3 and 7 Tetrameter with 2nd foot Spondee

1. Am(/)ple(U)│ make(/) this(U)│ Bed(/) –                              A         5          Trochaic Trimeter; truncated unaccented syllable

2. Make(/) this(U) │Bed(/) with(U)│ Awe(/) –                        B         5          Trochaic Trimeter

3. In(/) it(U) │wait(/) till(/)│ Judg(/)ment(U) │break(/)             C         7          Tetrameter; 2nd foot spondee:

4. Ex(/)cell(U)│ent(/) and(U)│ Fair(/)                                      D         5          Trochaic Trimeter

5. Be(/) its(U)│ Mat(/)tress(U) │straight(/) –                        E          5          Trochaic Trimeter

6. Be(/) its(U) │Pil(/)low(U) │Round(/) –                                F          5          Trochaic Trimeter

7. Let(/) no(U) │Sun(/)rise’(/) │yell(/)ow(U) │noise(/)              G         7          Tetrameter; 2nd foot spondee

8. In(/)terr(U)│upt(/) this(U)│ Ground(/)                              F          5          Trochaic Trimeter

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2 thoughts on “The Duality of Sex and Death in Dickinson’s Poem 829, “Ample make this Bed -”

  1. Pingback: Dek dit bed royaal – Emily Dickinson | The Hidden Law

  2. I have loved this poem for years. I appreciate your analysis of the meter, and also your leaving in the caps where Dickinson intended them, which is so important. I have read several analyses of this poem assuming that the speaker is talking about her own bed/coffin, but I have always understood it in perhaps the 19th century sense… a sort of wish for a recently-passed friend or relative. The poem is so emotional, at its core, that I think of it almost as a fierce wish for peace for this friend.

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