If I Should Die To-night
If I Should Die To-night
Burton E. Stevenson, Famous Single Poems And the Controversies Which Have Raged Around Them (London: George G. Harrap, 1924): 129-30. PS 303 S7 1924 Robarts Library
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
Desperately yearning for a reconcilation with friends and "hearts estranged", this poem's nameless speaker (let us say the poet herself) imagines circumstances in which they would forgive her. After her death, but before committing her body, laid out for a final viewing, to "its resting-place," those who knew her would gather for last farewells. They look on her "quiet face", place flowers by her hair, fold her hands, and kiss her brow. Then out well feelings of pity and of remorse for unsettled differences and for words never said. They choose their memories of their dead friend carefully, focusing on her kindly acts, gentle words, and willing errands, and putting aside her moments of "selfishness and pride," her "hasty words", and whatever had led to "war." After all, "who could war with dumb, unconscious clay" (23), with hands that are "icy" and lips that are "frozen"? Then, the speaker imagines, "I should be loved and mourned", "forgiven of all" (16, 24).
This might be all, in a conventionally sentimental poem. Identifying with the poem's speaker just by reason of reciting the poem, its readers would find the consolation in death that Keats wistfully feels in his "Ode to a Nightingale." "Rest in peace," the wish carved on many tombstones, is the moral of such a poem. Her face becoming "quiet", she at last "might rest" (24).
But Arabella Eugenia Smith does not rest. Passionately, suddenly, directly, she appeals to her "friends" and "hearts estranged" as if they were her readers. She pleads with them (us) to reject the deathbed scenes of the first three stanzas. This surprising last stanza explains why so simple a poem became popular with a very broad spectrum of 19th-century Americans. Lulled into a reverie, led to imagine how all their faults would be forgiven eventually and how they would be loved tenderly at last, readers are shockingly transformed into the very ones who deny the speaker, while she lives, that tender love she so longs for. Smith shatters the poem's imaginative world by addressing her readers directly. She turns a lyric into a dramatic monologue.
The reasons for this change can be sensed earlier. Gradually, Smith allows us to see that she is already becoming the dead person she imagines. On thinking of friends lovingly folding her dead hands, she refers to her own "Poor hands, so empty and so cold to-night" (8). Alive, they become -- in the subtlest of transitions -- the "icy hands" of the next stanza's dead body (11). Alive, she also suffers "The eyes that chill ... with averted glance" (20) in the third stanza. Gradually she is coming to see herself turning into the very corpse of her imaginings; and yet, despite that, she remains alone, unforgiven, unloved. No wonder she rejects that deathbed scene and cries out, "Oh, friends!", an address that breaks the pattern set by the preceding three stanzas. They all began with "If I should die to-night", but she rejects that hypothetical at line 25.
With this change, the speaker for the first time defends herself. She is "travelworn." The "willing feet" that had gone on errands have become "faltering feet ... pierced with many a thorn" (29). This image alludes to the story of Christ's crucifixion, told in the New Testament gospels. Jesus was given a crown of thorns as his enemies mocked him on the road to Golgotha. His last words included a prayer to God, who had forsaken him, to forgive Jesus' enemies, who knew not what they did. This allusion implies that the speaker, earlier self-condemned for "selfishness and pride" (14), is actually an innocent persecuted wrongly. Her final appeal to friends (2, 10, 25), "Keep not your kisses for my dead, cold brow", and to "hearts estranged, forgive, I plead!" (18, 30), reaches a pathos not common in poems of any century.Back to Line
Christian Union (June 18, 1873). Xerox University Microfilms