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.
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.