Behind Me-dips Eternity' (721) strives for an equally strong affirmation of immortality, but it reveals more pain than "Those not live yet" and perhaps some doubt. In the first stanza, the speaker is trapped in life between the immeasurable past and the immeasurable future. Death is represented as the dark of early morning which will turn into the light of paradise. The second stanza celebrates immortality as the realm of God's timelessness. Rather than celebrating the trinity, Emily Dickinson first insists on God's single perpetual being, which diversifies itself in divine duplicates. This difficult passage probably means that each person's achievement of immortality makes him part of God. The phrase 'they say' and the chant-like insistence of the first two stanzas suggest a person trying to convince herself of these truths. The pain expressed in the final stanza illuminates this uncertainty. The miracle behind her is the endless scope of time. The miracle before her is the promise of resurrection, and the miracle between is the quality of her own being-probably what God has given her of Himself-that guarantees that she will live again. However, the last three lines portray her life as a living hell, presumably of conflict, denial, and alienation. If this is the case, we can see why she is yearning for an immortal life. But she still fears that her present "midnight" neither promises nor deserves to be changed in heaven. These doubts, of course, are only implications. The poem is primarily an indirect prayer that her hopes may be fulfilled.
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One might be tempted to argue that Dickinson is not so much concerned with time as it determines our earthly existence but rather with timelessness, eternity, and immortality. Yet worth our critical consideration is how she uses precisely those signifiers of the absence of time as a means of approaching the concept of time, which seems so elusive even to her. One of the most successful attempts at defining time through timelessness is achieved in her poem "Behind Me - dips Eternity -" (FP 743). John Vanderstice points out that "the first three lines present a crucial, visual image of time" (195):
However, whether this image necessarily suggests "a circular model of time (â€¦) in which an eternal past arcs upward, runs through the present, and continues on the equally eternal future (â€¦)" is questionable (195). The circular model itself might be disputed because of the prepositions "behind" and "before" which suggest linearity, but the emphasis here juxtaposes eternity and immortality as representing timelessness on the one hand and time, or the existence in between, on the other. Moreover, it is not existence as such, the Being of the world, that is attributed time, but the human being, the lyrical I in the poem: "Myself - the Term between -" (emphasis added). This is significant because the poet thus states that it takes human consciousness in the first place to conceive both of time and of its opposite. The crucial word in this line, however, is Term," since it denotes both a specific period of time as well as a verbal expression. Interestingly, this line, unlike the two preceding, lacks a verb, unless we apply "dips" from the first line to this one as well. But that would not make much sense. Any verb used for grammatical functions is marked by its tense and thus signifies a certain time. The use of the present tense therefore adequately fits the first two lines since without future and past eternity and immortality manifest the forever now. By abandoning the verb and thus the use of a specific tense in the third line, Dickinson manages to avoid the dilemma of capturing present, past, or future. The "Term" contains all. Referring to the human being and existence, this poem also features the fact that human existence is terminated, framed by beginning and end. The "Term between" could thus even suggest a mere interruption of timelessness. The dilemma described by Vanderstice is dissolved by the poet: "The dilemma of immortality for Dickinson, then, is that if immortality means the continuation of individual consciousness, it must also mean a continuing awareness of time, whereas if one escapes the awareness of time in immortality, then immortality must mean 'the end of all consciousness in oblivion'
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Emily Dickinson imagines floating high above the earth and its history, looking down. From that perspective, she sees time itself:
Behind Me - dips Eternity
Before Me - Immortality -
Myself - the Term between -
Although the speaker of this poem rises above history, her soaring flight is troubled. The poem concludes with the image of a dark and stormy night. She is suspended, she writes,
With Midnight to the North of Her
And Midnight to the South of Her
And Maelstrom - in the Sky
This is a Civil War poem. Projected into the sky, the speaker imagines herself as a "term" negotiating between eternity and immortality at the heart of the storm that rages between the dark forces of North and South. But this is a strange civil war poem. It is not all that patriotic. It refuses to take sides. The self that Dickinson describes - positioned between past and future, eternity and immortality, North and South - is surprisingly unstable, hard to fix or pin down. Not only is she is at the heart of the maelstrom - she is a maelstrom. During the Civil War, when Dickinson was writing and revising furiously, her poetry often assumed a high-flying, abstract perspective on far-off violence. Poems such as "Behind Me - dips Eternity" bring together Dickinson's preoccupations with perspective, with historical and theological time, and with the war. Dickinson was interested in what she called "compound vision," and often presented a poetic point of view located somewhere outside of time and above the earth. She was also fascinated by the war. The carnage inspired her. With some regret, she described herself as a poet who sang "from the charnel steps" (JL 298). Many of her war poems are about violence, death, and uncertainty; a surprising number are also aerial perspective poems. But Dickinson's version of the bird's-eye view pushes beyond popular conventions. She has a particular knack for abstract aerial perspectives that are as disorienting as aerial photographs. Dickinson's poetic vision was profoundly shaped by the visual structure of modern warfare.
At the start of this essay, "Behind Me - dips Eternity" (FP 743) served as an example of a Civil War poem that presents an abstracted aerial view. "Behind Me" is also one of the many poems in which Dickinson's "compound vision" is explicitly aerialized to such a great height that she is able to see time itself - both historical time (the eternity that stretches behind her) and the posthumous future (the immortality that stretches before her). In "Behind Me," as in of "The Admirations - and Contempts - of time," the "Height" is somehow related to "Dying." The grave itself
is an optical device that helps to construct an aerial perspective.
"Behind me - dips Eternity" has an unusual utilization of tenses.