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31 October 2012

As far from pity, as complaint—

As far from pity, as complaint—
As cool to speech—as stone—
As numb to Revelation
As if my Trade were Bone—

As far from time—as History—
As near yourself—Today—
As Children, to the Rainbow's scarf—
Or Sunset's Yellow play

To eyelids in the Sepulchre—
How dumb the Dancer lies—
While Color's Revelations break—
And blaze—the Butterflies!
                                                F364 (1862)  496

Photo: Edward Byrne, 2012
While this poem reminds me of “Safe in their alabaster chambers,” I think it lacks that poem’s stately mystery. The dead sleep away the centuries under their rafters of satin and roofs of stone, waiting for the Resurrection, while outside “Worlds scoop their Arcs-- / And firmaments—row.” One wonders if the resurrection will happen at all.
In this poem, Dickinson simply contrasts the dead with the living. The dead are far from pity or complaint. They just lie there. They speak no more than a stone does, have no more interest in Revelation—the New Testament book that discusses the Resurrection—than a simple jumble of bones. They have no awareness of time or history, and are as likely to touch you as children are the sunset or a rainbow.
Perhaps the most poignant image is in the last stanza where the dancer in the grave is blind and dumb while all about in the living world “Color’s Revelations break” and butterflies “blaze.” Like Alabaster Chambers, the dead in this poem seem to be dead for good. And also like Alabaster, being alive seems much, much better than being dead.


  1. We've just studied this poem in class and are intrigued by your analysis. We think that although you've responded sensitively to the imagery, you've rather glossed over the syntax. The dancers aren't in the grave. The person in the grave is looking out and can't see the dancer. The dead bodies are a metaphor for all of us who can't see the truth, when really it's all around us. You have failed to take account of the transcendental view of the world and creation that informs all of Emily's poems, and which was a key element of her indebtedness to Emerson.

    1. Thank you for your insightful reading. After re-reading the poem with your comments in mind, I see your point: Dickinson seems to be critiquing the dead metaphorically. Those 'dead' folks around us wouldn't appreciate a Dickinson poem (her "Trade"), and are immune to either pity or complaint about such matters. Colors, dancers, butterflies -- these are hardly noticed by such folks.
      And yet, I think she is also talking about the dead. The second stanza is key to my reading of this. The world's essential aliveness comes not only from poetry, dance, the swirl of sunset and the blaze of butterflies, but from the inescapable march of time. Like History, the dead are no longer in the present; their former lives -- their own selves -- are as unrecoverable as are sunsets or rainbows to children's grasping hands.
      As for the final stanza, the Dickinson lexicon (based on, among other things, the 1844 Webster dictionary, defines "Dancer" as:
      "Ballerina; [fig.] sun; [metaphor] person once living; human being who had been breathing, living, and moving."
      Take heed, I think Dickinson is implying. Don't be dead to this world, for your senses will be extinguished soon enough..

  2. How dumb the Dancer, hmm, don't usually associate lack of speech with dancers. Unless I'm misunderstanding the word dumb her, besides echoing numb from the first stanza, what's going on?

    I wonder if dancers here reflect The Word made flesh the dead (in us) can no longer see. Help me out, how she jumbles up the senses here, and why.

    1. Check the Emily Dickinson Lexicon ( on "Dancer" (see my above response to earlier comment). The Dancer represents a former very alive person, quick and expressive, now deadened and distant to the world. She is "cool to speech", numb to the revelations of poetry (as if Dickinson's trade were dry bone), far from time, and as separated from herself as rainbows are from children's touch or sunsets to dead eyes. After this list of sensory impoverishment, Dickinson returns to the earlier Revelation. This time the once-lively dancer is unable to respond, is dumb to, Color's Revelations and a blaze of butterflies. It is an extreme contrast of the color, movement, and vibrancy of life to the silence of the grave. "Dumb", I believe, represents the inability of all the senses to function, not just speech. And I also think you're right that it echoes the earlier "numb".

  3. Dumb to all senses, thanks.

  4. Great analysis, Susan.
    I feel the reference to 'stone' in the first stanza is a particularly apt analogy as it suggests the tombstones of the dead, while also evidently alluding to the unfeeling and unyielding nature of the deceased.
    Stylistically, Dickinson employs caesura to enhance the separation from and distance between the living and the dead (now out of reach), such as in the line 'As children, to the rainbow's scarf'. The striking enjambment between stanzas two and three also reinforce this sense of distance between the living animation of nature and the inertia of the dead.
    In addition, the allieration of 'dumb' and 'dancer' sound heavy to the ear, conveying the leaden stasis of the dead, while the abundance of 'l' sounds in the last two lines evoke a sense of lightness and animation.

    1. I re-read the poem after reading your response and was surprised by my very cool reaction to the poem. I now think it quite lovely and moving -- for reasons such as the ones you provide. The language, imagery, and poetic devices are exquisite.

  5. Thanks for your comment. I agree; the poetic devices employed in the poem are wonderful and there is marvellous subtlety and complexity behind the choice of verbs and some of the seemingly simple imagery. For example, the verb 'Blaze' foregrounded in the final line, while describing the vital and colourful riot of life (in this instance, the butterflies), also implicitly reminds us that all living creatures and beings will eventually become 'dumb' like the deceased 'dancer' in the grave. The blaze of a small fire inevitably burns out, or is extinguished. This sense of the transience and even futility of life is further suggested by the very use of the noun 'butterflies', the most ephemereal of creatures. Life and death are perhaps not so separate afterall.

    1. And the double use of "Revelation" -- first in regards to her own work (how could I have ignored/missed that?) and second as to the colors she depicts -- as symbolic of human life, too. And the poet's trade being 'bone' -- an intimation of the Sepulchre to come. The more I read, the tighter and deeper I find this gem.

  6. Good point regarding the word 'bone'. I noticed also that this implicit connection between life and death is further suggested through the rhyming of 'bone' and 'stone' (with the latter word, as mentioned above, possibly alluding to the tombstone). In the final stanza, Dickonson also uses sound patterns to suggest meaning, with the rhyming of the verb 'lies' to describe the dead with the noun 'Butterflies' which symbolises life. This connection of words heightens the intimation that all life will end in the inertia of death.
    I agree that the subtlety and suggestive powers of the poem are wonderful and merit very close reading.