Death is a common topic in Dickinson's poetry. In his Dickinson biography My Wars are Laid Away in Books Alfred Habegger recounts many incidents of Dickinson's childhood where death was prominent. Child mortality rates were much higher, and the Dickinsons were often cautioned to keep careful watch over their children, often keeping a young Emily and at times their youngest child, Lavinia, from school for fear of the slightest illness. It is known that Emily Dickinson witnessed the death of a child when she was still young, and it seems to have made a strong imprint upon her mind.
The mystery of the journey between life and what lies beyond seems to fascinate the poet, and much of her writing muses upon possibilities. Sometimes it is a carriage ride, sometimes darker. But always it is a trek into the unknown and unfamiliar, and the poems pose far more questions than any solace they seek to create:
The going from a world we know
To one a wonder still
Is like a child's adversity
Whose vista is a hill,
Behind the hill is sorcery
And everything unknown,
But will the secret compensate
For climbing it alone?
"Sorcery" is a loaded image in this poem, indicating that the appearance of the world might not match reality. It implies there is misleading, possibly with malicious intent. Again, I can't help but wonder if this is Dickinson's way of snubbing religion, suggesting that "heaven" might to be all that the Bible leads the reader to believe. There are tones of doubt that are cleverly disguised with one of Dickinson's most stable and most interlocking rhyme schemes (ABCBCDED). A consistent and more direct rhyme lend the poem and sing-song rhythm that puts the reader at ease and lowers his or her guard.
In fact, it should only amplify the reader's suspicions that perhaps the final two lines really indicate that nothing in this manipulated and illusory world that exists over the hill or just beyond life is really worth the pain of separation and isolation in climbing the hill alone. What started as a similie that seems to be offered in comfort-- facing death is like spying the hill and wondering what lies beyond-- has terminated in distrust and uncertainty. Are the risks of deception worth the separation? Dickinson's tone indicates that the risks are not worth it, but she and the unknown speaker leave this final conclusion for the reader to decide.
I do wonder, though, if this poem could also be viewed as the soul considering entering the world, pre-birth. Looking at the poem as a soul pre-incarnate it could be viewed as a play off of William Blake's The Book of Thel, considering whether it is good to remain as is, in heaven and innocent, or whether to risk the toils and pains of earth and to be born into a human body. I wish I could discuss this with Dickinson. Possibly she meant the poem to read as I have previously interpreted it-- as the person considering death and what might lie beyond-- but I still wonder if maybe she was aiming for the pre-incarnate soul as well.