The Whole of it came not at once —
‘Twas Murder by degrees —
A Thrust — and then for Life a chance —
The Bliss to cauterize —

The Cat reprieves the Mouse
She eases from her teeth
Just long enough for Hope to tease —
Then mashes it to death —

‘Tis Life’s award — to die —
Contenteder if once —
Than dying half — then rallying
For consciouser Eclipse —

Analysis, meaning and summary of Emily Dickinson's poem The Whole of it came not at once —


  1. The Writer says:

    Bearing the burden of the Civil War, the assassination of the President, and new technological advancements, America in the late nineteenth century was in turmoil. Amongst all this chaos, a shy recluse by the name of Emily Dickinson was fighting an internal battle. Haunted by the threat of epileptic fits and sweeping epidemics, Dickinson was exposed to death at a young age. Her only refuge was writing small poem books where she discreetly addressed her fears toward marriage, suffering, religion and above all, death. Her poem, creatively titled #762, lures the reader to question the very moment when life and death collide. This poem boldly addresses Dickinson’s fascination and obsession with dying and the mysterious journey from humanity to the uncertainty of eternity.

    Dickinson uses the classic example of the hunter and the hunted to reinforce her stance on death. The second stanza describes the manipulation and torture a cat imposes upon a mouse. She writes:
    The Cat reprieves the Mouse
    She eases from her teeth

    According to the Lexicon dictionary, reprieves means “to delay the execution of” (Emily Dickinson Lexicon). The cat taunts and tantalizes its prey giving the mouse an insincere sense of safety. The next line reads:

    Just long enough for Hope to tease –
    Then mashes it to death –

    Dickinson’s graphic cartoon-like depiction represents how she envisions God taking humans out of this world. The Cat in this instance represents God while the mouse symbolizes the helplessness of human beings. God has the ability to toy with us and tease us throughout our lives, making us question when we are going to die. One moment we can be perfectly healthy and the next he can decide to “mash us to death.” Throughout Dickinson’s life, she witnessed the deaths of numerous family members and friends due to diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and small pox. The rhythm of the first three lines sounds like a nursery rhyme or hymn; it gradually builds suspense and gives the mouse a false sense of hope. Violently and abruptly the last line swoops in and erases any existence of the mouse. This structure follows the same pattern as human life does. Life’s long journey leads people on many twists and turns where memories are formed and hope is nurtured but in an instant it can all be gone forever.
    The best representation of crossing from life to death can be seen in the last few lines of Dickinson’s poem. For her conclusion she writes:
    Than dying half – than rallying
    For Consciouser Eclipse

    In an eclipse, the moon engulfs the sun causing dark to consume light. The word eclipse is derived from the Greek word Ekleipsis, which means “an abandonment” or “to forsake a usual place” (Harper). Passing from life to eternity requires an abandonment of one’s soul from their physical body. Dickinson uses the word “consciouser”, meaning “knowing in one’s self” or “the power of knowing”. (Harper). She believes the journey from the living to the dead is a whole body experience that the person is aware of. An eclipse appears slowly and while it forms crowds gather to admire the moon overshadow the sun. This epitomizes an individual’s journey through life. The transition from a child to an elderly adult takes a while to complete. As a person lies on their death bed, a crowd of family and friends usually gathers to say goodbye and watch. At the final breathe the person passes from the light into the unknown darkness. In context with the Cat and Mouse stanza, Dickinson believes dying should be an immediate action. The dying should not linger because after fulfilling their life death is salvation or a reward. It is also believed by many religions that at the exact moment of Jesus’s crucifixion an eclipse took place. Dickinson saw a parallel between the ultimate sacrifice of a man leaving this earth to seek the salvation of God and the death of an ordinary being.
    To understand this poem, the reader must decipher the first stanza. Dickinson begins the poem:
    ’The Whole of it came not at once –
    ‘Twas Murder by degrees –

    Deducing what the word “it” indicates can unlock they mystery surrounding the subject of Dickinson’s poem. “It” could stand for life or death. Life slowly progresses but cannot be fully experienced until an individual’s last breath. In the context of the rest of the poem it makes more sense for the “it” to signify death. Dickinson’s opening line refers to the slow and ongoing process of death. The phrase “by degrees” means gradually. She persists that life is a gradual murder or killing of someone. From the moment an individual is born they have started the process of dying.
    Dickinson then remarks:
    A Thrust – and then for Life a chance –
    The Bliss to cauterize

    Humans are thrust into this world as infants; they grow, learn, marry, and have their own children. They wander through life giving things a chance and just when they start figuring things out their time is up. She ends the stanza with the statement, “The Bliss to cauterize – ”. The relationship between bliss and cauterize seems to contradict each other. Bliss is the first sign of emotion Dickinson reveals. It seems strange to find joy or delight in burning or branding something. She could be alluding to how humans find happiness in burning their own path, branding or defining their lives with things they do and accomplishments they achieve. Cauterization was a medical practice that required burning an infected body part a more medical sense, was used to burn wounds or close amputations; a technique that saved or preserved lives. In death we are closed off from the life we once knew and hopefully opened to the bliss of the afterlife.
    Dickinson carefully and intentionally chose specific words and sounds to convey a certain message. In the last stanza Dickinson writes, “’Tis Life’s award – to die – ”. Her word choice begs the question of why she used award instead of reward. According to the Lexicon dictionary, the definition of award is judgment, sentencing or compensation, while reward is defined as a bribe or the fruit of men’s labor. Going with the theme, death is the ultimate judgment day. God does his final sentencing, and the deceased are either condemned to eternal hell or reap the benefits of paradise. The constant battle between life and death is not only conceptual. Throughout the poem Dickinson bounces back and forth between the two words. Like a new born, she starts the first stanza with life. As the poem progresses to the second stanza she introduces death. In the final stanza she combines the two saying, “Life’s award – to die – ”. She creates a boxing match between the two and there can only be one winner. Ironically, as Dickinson alternates between these two words it paints a picture of someone on their death bed fighting between the two worlds. They are trying to rally back from death to remain with their family and friends, but ultimately death gets the last laugh and this person must succumb to the darkness.
    For a woman of the late nineteenth century, Dickinson’s life was anything but ordinary. Her mysterious demeanor, rumored epilepsy and her unusual road to fame made her an intriguing woman. Weaving through this complicated poem, she slowly and depressingly persuades the audience there will be that inevitable moment when life and death cross paths. Dickinson in her stubborn, headstrong, reclusive persona realizes she is not immune to death. Dickinson writes this poem because she is surrounded and taunted with the threat of death and the loss of family and friends. Just as the cat taunts the mouse, God dangles all of us by a thin thread, and our thread could be cut at any moment.

  2. Steve Sikora says:

    We are like the mouse, is what I take from this wonderful poem: a quick death (all at once) would find us a lot more contented than the half-dying, rallying, hoping that goes on when the cat does its playful murdering. And even just thinking about it, as poets and other people do, makes ones own eventual eclipse a maybe more conscious experience than one would like! Steve Sikora

  3. Kate says:

    I believe that this poem is about deaths of close friends or family members. I am doing a research project on emily dickinson and i have come across information about deaths in her family in a 6 year period. there is a bio on her on this site and if you want to find more information about dickinson, you should check it out.

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