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19 October 2012

If anybody's friend be dead


If anybody's friend be dead
It's sharpest of the theme
The thinking how they walked alive—
At such and such a time—

Their costume, of a Sunday,
Some manner of the Hair—
A prank nobody knew but them
Lost, in the Sepulchre—

How warm, they were, on such a day,
You almost feel the date—
So short way off it seems—
And now—they're Centuries from that—

How pleased they were, at what you said—
You try to touch the smile
And dip your fingers in the frost—
When was it—Can you tell—

You asked the Company to tea—
Acquaintance—just a few—
And chatted close with this Grand Thing
That don't remember you—

Past Bows, and Invitations—
Past Interview, and Vow—
Past what Ourself can estimate—
That—makes the Quick of Woe!
                                                            F354 (1862)  509

One point of empathy among humans is the grief at death. We feel empathy even for those we don’t like at all when they have lost a close friend. It is a sharp and aching sorrow. In this poem Dickinson goes through some of the ways we miss the recent dead. It’s a sentimental poem, but seems heartfelt.
http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1585507            The first stanza sets up the topic of the poem, the pain that comes from reliving our time spent with a friend who has died. Dickinson then goes through a list of such memories, contrasting them with the void of such memories on the part of the dead. While we easily—and painfully—remember such things as what they wore one Sunday, how they wore their hair, some “prank” they pulled, how they complained of the heat, how they laughed at something, and how they chatted at tea, the dead are not in that space.
            Instead, they are “Centuries from that” as if they’d lived hundreds of years ago instead of very recently. And while they were once warm they are now so cold that even to “touch the smile” is to “dip your fingers in the frost.” You risk a bit of cosmic chill for all of us must die and surely dwelling on death can impart a bit of a freeze. And finally, the poet makes the assertion that the dead “don’t remember you.” All of these thoughts, how the dead are so distant, so cold, so unknowing of those of us they once loved, is “the sharpest of the theme” of grief. The “Quick of Woe” is another Dickinsonian paradox: memories give life to pain. The irony is that nothing will give life to the dead.
            It’s a somber poem for all its sentimentality. Nowhere is there talk of the afterlife. The closest Dickinson gets to some sense of salvation or hope is when she calls the dead person, the corpse, really, “this Grand Thing.” But the phrase in context seems ironic. There is nothing grand about a corpse that cannot feel the warmth of life, that is “Lost, in the Sepulchre” without memories or even vows. 

8 comments:

  1. Susan,

    I wonder if her last stanza might be saying that once you are past all the ceremony is the "Quick of Woe", now the loss has space and time to settle on you.

    And yes, the sharpest pain and the sweetest pain in the remembrance of the friend...soon to soften to fond memories, and if a close friend their ever living presence in your mind.

    I'm new to Emily and the era...can you tell me if "That don't remember you" was grammatically correct for the time?

    Thank you,

    SJM

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    Replies
    1. The Emily Dickinson Lexicon suggests that "Quick" here means "the most sensitive part" -- like "cut me to the quick". So the Quick of Woe is how far removed the dead person is. Far beyond imagining.

      And no, the "don't" should be "doesn't" for grammatical correctness both then and now (consider Emerson, Melville, or the Victorian poets; none would write so). Her uneven grammar was an obstacle to even those who thought she was a truly good and original poet.

      I think many scholars and readers come to consider her words as sounds and also not as accidents. That "don't", to me, gives an eery multiplicity to the corpse. the 'z' sound in "doesn't" might also have swayed Dickinson against it. But who knows???

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    2. I love the phrase "Quick of Woe" -- although I've only focused on it in this discussion. The two words have such different meanings (if you thik of Quick as 'fast' or 'alive') -- they also have opposing sounds: Quick is ... quick! and mostly hard consonants. "Woe" is long and drawn out like a wail, and doesn't have any hard consonants.

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  2. S...Yes, I was taking the meaning of "quick" as you explain it...

    Past Bows, and Invitations—
    Past Interview, and Vow—
    Past what Ourself can estimate—
    That—makes the Quick of Woe!

    So I was getting that once the griever is past all the ceremonial falderal, the sharpest loss settles in. The dead can't have "woe", quick or otherwise, only the living. (I must have a block here.)

    I'm not unhappy with the "don't"...in fact it makes you sit up and take notice....and I'm happy to know it was as "incorrect" then as now for that reason!

    TY.

    SJM

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, I see now how I didn't understand your first response. And I agree with you. In looking at that stanza again, I really like the slant rhyme of "Vow" and "Woe".

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  3. Yes, I took the meaning of "quick" as you explain it.

    Past Bows, and Invitations—
    Past Interview, and Vow—
    Past what Ourself can estimate—
    That—makes the Quick of Woe!

    It reads to me as though E. is saying that once all the ceremonial falderal is over, the sharpest loss is felt...the "Quick of Woe"...only the griever can feel the woe, the dead are free of it. ( I may be blocked here....)

    I'm glad "don't" is there and is as incorrect then as now. It adds punch to a line that is meant to "punch" you!

    NOTE: An earlier similar post "disappeared"...it said it was "publishing" but it never did.

    TY...SJM

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  4. And yet from the voice in the poem, the poet's perspective, all this sharpness and Quick of Wo, is seen clearly and dispassionately as if from the distance of centuries.

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    Replies
    1. It's odd, isn't it, how sometimes Dickinson's language is so powerful and impassioned -- she just unlids herself -- and sometimes, as in this one, it is insulated and cool. And the themes in both cases might be the same!

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