Fascicle #21 falls at the mid-point of Dickinson's bundles of verse, stitched together by the poet and secreted away, as she lived her quiet, introspective life. We know little of what criteria she may have applied in selecting the poems in each of these fascicles and can only speculate on the meanings of some of her highly personal symbols.
The seventeen poems that make up Fascicle #21, nonetheless, have obvious thematic linkages, their images repeated and interwoven to form a delicate pattern. The main thread that seems to run through the fascicle is the concept of eternity. There is a sense of timelessness, and of time collapsed upon itself. The first poem in the fascicle, #440, describes a visit to "home" after many years; the soul is filled with fear and alienation, and rushes away like a thief. The metaphor of the ocean for an unbridgeable expanse is introduced in this poem. By the last poem, #455, the soul owns a treasure and her wealth is recognized by others - she is not a thief but the recipient of a priceless gift. The progression from this fearful disentitlement to the proud, confident ownership of #455 takes place as a pilgrimage through eternity depicted in the other intervening poems.
Normally, death would be seen as an ending but in Dickinson's view of eternity, it seems more like an altered state of being. In the second poem, #441, the process of dying takes the soul through a series of attachments, some more recent replacements for those who had gone before; the shifting realities make the more distant past as vivid as or more vivid than the present. In #442, the darkness, the separating years and the grave are again recognized as no barrier to "light," the transparent communication that links living and dead.
Poems #443 and #444 introduce the theme of insignificance, shrinking the poetic vision into insect scale: bumblebees, gnats; the tiny individual contends against the mighty dragon, the "mightier He." Poem #445 contains the image of the little girl restrained in the closet/grave of prose, yet her mind, a small, seemingly insignificant thing - a bird - leaps out into an audacious freedom. This grouping of poems examines the idea of the ordinary, powerless life that still can achieve greatness, and can expand itself into an untrammeled universe.
Poem #446 mirrors the one before, and shows the power of poetry to turn assumptions inside out. The little girl who was vainly forced to be "still" and shut up in a "closet" now is juxtaposed with the Poet, who "distills" and is the "discloser." The "ordinary meanings," like the "familiar species" referred to in #444 and #445, have "perished by the Door," the barrier referred to in the first poem of the fascicle. The Poet possesses the wealth alluded to in the last poem of the fascicle, and is "exterior - to Time," or part of eternity. The thief-like fugitive who steals away in the first poem, and reappears as a treasonous creature in #445 is now rendered beyond such concerns: in the bounty of the poet's vision, the ordinary person is robbed yet not impoverished.
In #447, she returns to the image of death, of a man enclosed in his grave, yet achieving grace - the release into eternity - in death. Its companion poem, #448, explores the Keatsian kinship of Truth and Beauty: the speaker has died for beauty, and her companion in the next room for truth. They seem companionable and content in that strange life-after-death that is so central to Dickinson's imagery, and she returns to the image of the effacing moss, first put forth in poem #441. The horror of the living burial described in #447 is now rather cozy, an installation rather than an imprisonment.
Poem #449 contrasts the dream state with the waking one, and reveals that it is better to wake at midnight, dreaming of dawn, than to in a solid undream-like dawn realize that no day will follow. This apocalyptic vision is softened with the image of the robin - the bird who could not be impounded in #445.
Poem #450 juxtaposes inner and outer, poetry and prose, dream and reality, death and life, and explores the interrelationship of these opposites. Dwarf, the insignificant gnat, the bumblebee, the little girl, is only another aspect of the Duke, a royal figure who will reappear in the last half of the fascicle. The star encountered in #445 is now one with the lake, the vast body of water from #440 shrunk to human proportions.
Poem #172, written years earlier, is inserted next, and it perfectly fits with the collapsed-eternity theme of the fascicle. The speaker achieves identity at last - perhaps Dickinson herself recognizing her poetic power. Through this achievement, the soul speeds forward through midnight, the star and sunrise, images by now familiar to the reader, and into boundless freedom.
The following poem, #451, introduces the black man (night, death, prose?) who is now the thief figure. He steals the speaker's treasure and bore it away to the void of the sea and hid it in a hut (the grave?). The pessimistic tone of this poem balances the optimism of #172, and is alleviated by the final line "Alike to Him - One," which recalls the harmless robbery of #446 which is "exterior to time."
Poem #452 echoes the progression in #442; through a series of impossibilities in which the speaker cannot measure the beloved (as in #442, she could not see him), still she transcends the barriers and joins him in eternity. The image of the Duke returns, as does the high place (the star?) and the ocean. The duality of the images collapses on itself - two become one.
Poem #453 explores eternity further - the forked nature (duality) of the road that leads through death and allows no retreat. Yet God is at every gate, both barring and blessing the progress. Poem #454 goes back to #452, and reverses the positions of speaker and Prince/Duke/Emperor; now she is high and he is low. She reassures him that to attain eternity, he must "pass through this low Arch of Flesh" - be born in order to die. The Attar of #446 is now the Balm of #454 - the healing substance of human contact.
Finally, in #455, the little girl possesses the treasure and realizes that her "difference," the gift finally realized in #172, takes away the fear she felt in #440. There is no longer a door in her way, nor can anyone limit her or impeach her for crimes; she is free to explore her eternity.
These poems were written at a time of enormous productivity for Emily Dickinson, and the chaotic ferment of ideas and images that must have been going through her mind is carefully disciplined in the symbols that repeat themselves throughout the fascicle. It is impossible to read these poems without feeling a sense of exultation, of spiritual triumph over the trammels of the world. Whether this soaring sense of freedom is because of Dickinson's rejoicing in her poetry, or her supposed love affair, we will never know. Whoever it was that she is presumed to have fallen in love with (the Master), this unfulfilled relationship was later to produce poems of despair, but in Fascicle #21, the mood is rather exultant, perhaps even defiant.
In format, the poems are brief, ranging from the four lines of #443 to barely over twenty in #454. The lines themselves are also very economical, many of them as brief as four syllables. They vary considerably in length from line to line within some poems: #448 is extraordinarily regular, the alternating eight- and six-syllable lines galloping along almost like doggerel, others like #452,…