• Mass Times

• Coming Events

• Sacraments

• Ministries

• Parish Staff

• Consultative Bodies

• Photo Gallery

• Virtual Tour

• History

• Contribute


• Bulletin

• In Your Midst

• Pastor's Desk


• Becoming Catholic

• Bookstore

• Faith Formation

• Funerals

• Immigrant Assistance

• Liturgy

• Mental Health

• Music

• Outreach/Advocacy

• Pastoral Care

• Weddings

• Young Adults

• Youth Ministry






Safe in their Alabaster Chambers (124)
Emily Dickinson
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -
Untouched by Morning -
and untouched by noon -
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone -
Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them -
Worlds scoop their Arcs -
and Firmaments - row -
Diadems - drop -
And Doges surrender -
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disk of Snow.
Emily Dickinson is well-known as a recluse whose poems were virtually unknown in her lifetime. But, as Dickinson scholar Martha Ackmann demonstrates in a new book (These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson), Emily Dickinson was no amateur. She was serious about her writing. She shared her poems with people she respected, she listened to advice, she revised, and she published. One of the poems that was published in her lifetime was “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.”
This poem is a beautiful, and unsettling, reflection on death. It is typical of Dickinson to have imagery that is at once cozy, domestic, and strange. The dead are in their “chambers,” their rooms—but these chambers are of “alabaster,” with “satin” rafters and “stone” roofs—materials that evoke coffins and cemetery monuments. The dead are “safe”: “untouched by Morning--/and untouched by noon.” They are beyond the passage of time—and yet there is something sad in that phrase “untouched by morning.” They are beyond time, but they are also beyond fresh beginnings. And yet, they are not finished yet. These are “the meek members of the Resurrection”: they are not dead, but sleeping, and awaiting the Resurrection.
The second stanza takes a sweeping glance of time and history. “Grand go the years” above these sleepers. Planets complete their orbits, and “firmaments row”—continents move. “Diadems” and “doges,” kingdoms and nations fall—but to the dead, all of this movement and action is as “soundless as Dots, / On a Disk of Snow.” There is something reassuring in this: Dickinson was writing in 1862, at the beginning of the Civil War. The dead are beyond the reach of war and violence. But there is also something chilling, we might say, about the image of those “dots on a disk of snow.” It evokes the silence, the peace of the world of the dead, but, as Martha Ackmann points out, the image is also “cold as ice.” These “alabaster chambers” are not exactly cozy!
I think Dickinson’s poem is a good one for this month of November, a time when the Church prays for the dead. We profess our belief in the resurrection of the dead every Sunday when we pray the Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” What does it mean to believe in the resurrection of the dead? It means we believe that not only our souls, but, one day, our bodies, will be raised to new life in God. As we read in the Old Testament book of Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust; Whom I myself shall see: My own eyes, not another’s, shall behold him; And from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). The Church does not profess that we will be raised symbolically or metaphorically; the Church professes that at Christ’s coming, we will be reunited with our bodies—not to return to an earthly life, but to live in a new way in “the world to come” (cf. Catechism, 997ff). How this will happen, the Church has never claimed to know; but that it will happen, is a Christian certainty. That is why the Church takes such care with the mortal remains of the dead. When we are laid to rest, we become the “meek members of the Resurrection,” awaiting transformation in God’s good time.
Back to Dickinson. Emily Dickinson actually wrote two endings to this poem, which is revealing. Here’s how the poem originally ended.
Light laughs the breeze
In her castle above them,
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear,
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence:
Ah! What sagacity perished here!
In the first ending, Dickinson emphasized all the beauty of the earth which the dead are missing out on: the laughing breeze, the bee, the song of the birds. “What sagacity,” what wisdom died with these dead!
But in the revised, final version of the poem, Dickinson takes quite a different approach. It is the world above that is perishing—“diadems drop and doges surrender.” The dead sleep safely through all that upheaval and change.
In this poem, Dickinson wonders, not always comfortably, about death and resurrection. In this season, may it inspire each of us to do some wondering, too.



Return to St. James Cathedral Parish Website

804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303