How noteless Men, and Pleiads, stand,
Until a sudden sky
Reveals the fact that One is rapt
Forever from the eye –
Members of the Invisible,
Existing, while we stare,
In Leagueless Opportunity,
O'ertakenless, as the Air–
Why didn't we detain Them?
The Heavens with a smile,
Sweep by our disappointed Heads
Without a syllable –
F342 (1862) 282
|Stars sweeping around the night sky|
It begins with both “Men” and “Pleiads” being “noteless” – or clueless about what happens after death (or clueless about the big questions in general). The Pleiads are included, perhaps, because one of the Seven Sisters, Merope, went missing. Actually, this one star is there but rarely visible to the naked eye. But perhaps “a sudden sky” would have a special clarity that allows her to be seen. It might show that she – and the missing dead – are “rapt”: taken up into heaven and transformed.
In such a moment of insight and clarity we suddenly realize that in some way all of our dead are “Existing, while we stare” blindly at the sky. It’s one of those camping-out thoughts except that Dickinson says so much more in this poem. The dead, now “Members of the Invisible,” are so far out of our reach that they are overtakenless, just as the air cannot be overtaken. They are no longer limited by the world and by human bodies, but in a state of “Leagueless Opportunity.”
“Why didn’t we detain Them,” the poet asks. We could learn so much from them. We might be able to keep them around in some form or another. We might just be able to keep them in sight. But the “Heavens” won’t tell. They give a smile and just keep revolving without so much as a “syllable.” It’s a humbling and frustrating thought, but I like the idea of the heavens sweeping by with all the host of “the Invisible” in train, far far from any earthly influence.