Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
- Now that we have a feel for the mood, the sounds, and the atmosphere, we get to see a little bit more of the room. The speaker tells us that that "The Eyes around – had wrung them dry – " (line 5).
- That’s not a lot of information, but it’s all we need to build up an image of the friends and family that must be around her.
- When she tells us that these eyes are dry, we also learn a lot about the particular moment of this poem. People have been crying, their eyes were wet, but now they are not. Maybe they feel exhausted, or resigned, or even at peace.
- We are in an emotional lull, too, between all of the crying that comes before death, and all that will come after. Even the breathing of the watchers (and maybe of the speaker?) has evened out, as they prepare themselves quietly for what is to come.
- Can you hear the way she is adding sounds into the poem, and then sucking them back out? She tells us that there used to be crying and harsh, ragged breathing, but now there is just stillness.
- We are definitely getting ready for something, but maybe not what we expect.
For the last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
- What we’re probably expecting, and what all those dry eyes are probably watching for, is death. This is the moment when things change forever, when a person is really gone, when their chest heaves for the last time. This is what Dickinson calls the "last Onset" (line 7).
- What actually happens at this moment? You might have an image in your head of what this looks like. But Dickinson is always a little sneaky about these things, and wraps up her images in mystery. She tells us that what we, and the family, and the dying patient are waiting for is the moment when "the King be witnessed in the Room."
- Who the heck is this king? Again, we can’t be absolutely sure. It would be hard for a 19th century American reader to see this capital-K king here without thinking about God.
- But Dickinson isn’t a really conventional religious poet, and she could have said "the Lord" or even "Jesus" if she wanted to make that point clearer. So maybe the King is just death, the end that waits for everyone.
- We think it would be funnier and cooler if it turned out to be Elvis, but this poem is about a hundred years too early for that, unfortunately.