A TOAD can die of light!

A TOAD can die of light!
Death is the common right
Of toads and men,—
Of earl and midge
The privilege.
Why swagger then?
The gnat’s supremacy
Is large as thine.

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)


The first line of this poem really catches the readers attention with its emphasis and exaggeration, Emily had a great sense of humor. This was published in Complete Poems in 1924 under the heading of Time and Eternity. The first line may lead a reader think it was one of her nature poems such as A narrow fellow in the grass but she has once again misled and fooled.

Here, some believe, she is speaking in her usual frankness about death. The first line surely says that anything done in excess can cause death. Clichés come to mind such as 'there are no sure things except death and taxes' and 'we all put our pants on one leg at a time.' A poem meant to humble her audience for what real purpose is difficult to find, the last two phrases seem aimed at someone other than the reader:

    The gnat’s supremacy
    Is large as thine.
Is it God? The message is still the same; we and all the rest of the world no matter what we are or our station in life is, will come to end in death. But why does she claim death to be a privilege? Well she was Calvinistic and perhaps she thought to welcome her death as her heavenly reward. Or is she may be saying, all creatures die which leads more than one reader to ponder the superiority of species and surmise that in death, all is democratic.

Dickinson loves her ambiguity, she reveals and in the same stanza conceals. Readers of her work oftentimes discover it is a thoughtful challenge realizing that meaning is always elicited but never quite delivered. In her A toad can die of light!; some scholars speculate that she was influenced by Milton's Paradise Lost where he uses the toad as a symbolic image of Satan:

    Him there they found
    Squat like a toad,
    close at the ear of Eve,
From the perspective of her reclusive nature and her role as a woman in the society of her day, it could likely be an 'exposé' or enlightenment as to the evilness of pride. A retort to a painful remark maybe made to her by someone of a higher standing in her community as if someone close to her may have criticised her.

Sources:

Bartleby.com:
http://www.bartleby.com/113/4137.html

Public domain text taken from Representative Poetry Online:
http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem2638.html

CST Approved.

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