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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.