E Emily Dickinson

A Coffin is a Small Domain by Emily Dickinson

‘A Coffin—is a small Domain’ by Emily Dickinson explores death. It is characteristic of much of the poet’s work in that it clearly addresses this topic and everything that goes along with it.

To those familiar with the poet’s work, it is certainly no surprise that she should write a poem about a coffin. Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems are set in a graveyard or at a funeral, particularly her own grave and her own funeral. Dickinson seemed somewhat obsessed with the idea of death. She was pre-occupied with thinking about her own death.

In all of her thoughts and pondering of death, she was never able to make peace with the fact that one day, her own lifeless body would lie in a grave along with all who had gone before her. In her poem, ‘Because I could not stop for death‘ she explores her own journey through death, revealing her belief that death had tricked her into going along for the ride. In her poem, ‘I heard a fly buzz – when I died‘ she speaks as though one who was already dead, at her own funeral, hearing a fly buzz around her face so that she could not experience peace even in death. In ‘I felt a funeral in my brain she is quite certain that she has felt her own death before it was her time to die.

These are just a few examples of the works that Dickinson wrote which reveal her preoccupation with her own death. This obsession with death likely stemmed from the losses she experienced at a young age. Dickinson was particularly close to a cousin who died in childhood (Dickinson Properties). She also lived near a cemetery, which means that she would have seen funeral processions on a regular basis. This gave Dickinson plenty of opportunities to ponder death.

In fact, it seems she could not escape it. For Dickinson, her own mortality was more of a reality than her current life. She looked at time in the perspective of eternity, and she considered her time alive to be small and insignificant when compared to the infinite number of years she would lie in the grave.

She seems preoccupied with the idea of her own eternity, and she cannot seem to believe that it will be spending anywhere other than a tiny grave, no matter how hard she tries to believe something different. Her words sharply contrast the popular belief of her time. In most of her poems on death and eternity, she references both the popular belief inspired by the great awakening, along with her own belief which is often in direct opposition. She further reveals some of these thoughts and beliefs in ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain’.

'A Coffin is a Small Domain'

 

A Coffin—is a small Domain Analysis

Stanza One

A Coffin—is a small Domain,

Yet able to contain

A Citizen of Paradise

In it diminished Plane.

This is not the first poem in which Dickinson has commented on the size of one’s grave or coffin. It is almost as if she pictures herself aware of her surroundings when she is dead. In ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain’, the speaker begins by commenting on the size of a coffin. It is certainly a “small domain” yet one that the dead body will occupy forever. She comments that even though it is small, it is somehow “able to contain a citizen of paradise”. Dickinson often refers to an afterlife.

Sometimes, she refers to it as something she believes in, other times, she does not seem so sure. In this poem, it is difficult to tell whether she is referring to the dead person as a certain citizen of paradise, or whether she speaks sarcastically in order to compare her belief that the person will lie forever in the coffin with the beliefs of those around her that the dead person is now in paradise.

She could be marveling at the fact that a small coffin could contain a citizen of paradise. Or she could be questioning whether that is possible. She refers to the coffin as something “diminished” and on the same “plane” as she is. Yet this dead person is either on a different plane, or stuck there in the coffin forever.

 

Stanza Two

A Grave—is a restricted Breadth—

Yet ampler than the Sun—

And all the Seas He populates

And Lands He looks upon

With this stanza, the speaker moves from the coffin to the grave. This is much like the funeral and burial procession. The deceased person is in the coffin, and then the coffin is taken to the grave to be put down in the final resting place. The speaker explains that the grave is as confining a place as the coffin. It is described as “a restricted breadth”. It is, after all, only a few feet wide. Then, the speaker claims that even though is small, it is “ampler than the sun”. This suggests that the grave is more real than the sun. Even the sun will eventually burn out and die, but the grave is forever.

To the speaker, death was that real and that imminent. People experience the sun in everyday life and do not deny it’s existence. They feel it, and it is the thing that offers warmth and life. In much the same way, the speaker feels the reality of death day in and day out. It is real and imminent to her. She feels it every day like most people feel the sun. However, instead of offering warmth and life, it brings fear and emptiness. In the next two lines, the speaker introduces another person. She refers to this person as “He” and “Him” using the capital letter in both instances. This suggests that the person she refers to is God or perhaps even Jesus.

It is important to remember that the time period and place in which Emily Dickinson lived made it so that she could not help but hear the message of the Bible proclaimed daily, all around her. To live during the Great Awakening and to hear and read the famous sermons by Jonathan Edwards meant that Dickinson was surrounded by people who were converting to Christianity and claiming to believe in an afterlife. The author experienced life during the Great Awakening, and the effects it had on her come through the words of the speaker in ‘A Coffin—is a small Domain’. Here, when the speaker talks about “all the Seas He populates” and “Lands He looks upon” she is referring to God- the one who placed the animals in the sea, and the one who looks out over all of the lands.

These particular descriptions of God reveal that the author certainly had a knowledge of biblical descriptions. She chooses to use language that reflects that she is aware of the popular belief of her time. And yet, in light of the first stanza, there remains an undertone of sarcasm. It is not outright enough to conclusively confirm that she is mocking the belief system of those around her, but it certainly reflects a lack of conformity to the majority belief.

This stanza seems to contradict the rest of ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain’ in that she refers to God in terms as if she believed Him to be there. However, if she believed in a God, it is likely she would have believed in paradise as the final resting place. However, in ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain’, she seems to imply that the grave is the final resting place. For this reason, it is likely that her reference to “Him” is in a cynical, sarcastic tone. This interpretation would best fit with the way she ends this poem, and with the message, she communicates through her various other poems.

 

Stanza Three

To Him who on its small Repose

Bestows a single Friend—

Circumference without Relief—

Or Estimate—or End—

In this stanza, “Him” still refers to God. The speaker claims that when a person has died and entered a state of sleep, or “repose”, God bestows upon that person “a single friend”. At first, it seems as though the speaker may offer some kind of hope and comfort in the midst of death through her portrayal of the deceased one having been given a friend in death. However, the next line refutes that idea and implies that the only friend in death, so graciously given by God, is “circumference without relief”. This, again, seems contradictory unless it is understood that she speaks of “Him” cynically.

She cannot actually believe that God is the one who is bestowing the gift of “circumference without relief”. This is simply the speaker’s way of communicating her belief that there is no relief in death. This also reminds the reader of the first line of ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain’, in which the speaker resents the size of the coffin. She has continued to refer to the small space of the grace and the coffin. Again, it is almost as if she is afraid of being aware of her surroundings even in death, and having to spend the rest of eternity in a very small box.

Throughout ‘A Coffin—is a small Domain’, this idea is juxtaposed with the popular ideas of her time. While others believe that a person will go to paradise after death, this speaker seems to believe that she will remain forever in a small, confined area- her coffin. For this reason, when she says that God has given the dead person a friend, she then explains that the friend given is a “circumference” or a small area in which the person will forever be confined. To drive home the despair of this idea, the speaker describes the circumference as one “without relief- or estimate- or end”. Thus, the speaker openly reveals her belief that the grave is the final resting place and it offers no relief and no end.

 

Emily Dickinson Background

Much like the speaker in ‘A Coffin—is a small Domain’, Dickinson had a strikingly different belief system than the majority of the people around her. In many cases, she expressed a desire to believe in an afterlife, but could not bring herself to accept the idea. In a letter to a friend, she once wrote about all of the people around her who were converting to Christianity. She expressed the desire to believe, and yet she referred to herself as “one of the lingering bad ones”. This poem, along with many others, reflects such feelings. At some point in many of her poems, there seems to be the desire to believe in a paradise as an afterlife.

However, usually by the end of ‘A Coffin—is a small Domain’, she seems to abandon that idea and conclude that the grave is the final resting place. This poem, much like ‘Because I could not stop for Death reveals that the author had at least entertained the idea of seriously believing in an afterlife. For some reason, she ultimately rejects that idea. It is difficult to know whether her life experiences or her simple use of her logic and understanding kept her from believing in something that clearly would have offered her immense comfort.

Dickinson lost many people in her life, and it is almost certain that their deaths would have been easier for her to bear had she believed that she would be reunited with them one day in paradise. Yet, she could not believe it. Her belief that the grave is where it ends would have made the losses she suffered more agonizing than if she had believed they were in a better place. In poem after poem, Dickinson reveals the deepest desire to believe in something more, but she cannot. It is likely that Dickinson’s experiences with death also lead her to be deeply afraid of her own death.

This is why she consistently writes about what her own death would feel like. She feared being forever in a grave, and this fear comes through in many of her works. For this reason, Dickinson has the ability to make her readers think about eternity more deeply than they had before reading her poems. In a few short sentences, she is able to convey the deep, powerful, and often unspeakable feelings that surround the idea of an experience of death.

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About
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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