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06 December 2012

It don't sound so terrible—quite—as it did—

It don't sound so terrible—quite—as it did—

I run it over—"Dead", Brain—"Dead."

Put it in Latin—left of my school—

Seems it don't shriek so—under rule.

Turn it, a little—full in the face

A Trouble looks bitterest—

Shift it—just—

Say "When Tomorrow comes this way—

I shall have waded down one Day."

I suppose it will interrupt me some

Till I get accustomed—but then the Tomb

Like other new Things—shows largest—then—

And smaller, by Habit—

It's shrewder then

Put the Thought in advance—a Year—

How like "a fit"—then—

                                                          F384 (1862)  426

Dickinson would be no stranger to death--women died more frequently in childbirth in the 1800s than they do today. Illness took many more children. She would have known many of these dead in Amherst. Additionally, the nation was in the thick of the Civil War when she wrote this poem. While Dickinson unaccountably never addressed the conflict, she certainly knew men killed in the war. The death in this poem may refer to a particular man killed by the enemy or dead, perhaps murdered, by other means.
         The poet contemplates various ways we cope with grief. First, she desensitises herself to the words. "Dead, dead," she repeats. She translates it into the bit of Latin she recalls from her school days. It "doesn't shriek so" under the schoolgirl discipline. Over time, the word "Dead" "don't sound so terrible--quite--as it did."
         Second, the "Trouble" is to be confronted, looked full in the face. We are told to shift our view, see it full on at the bitterest angle—but then shift the vantage point just a bit more, just enough to dull the pain but not mask it. We're to then summon our resolve and proclaim that we can survive even if just by wading through the days, one at a time.
         In the third stanza Dickinson expresses confidence in resilience born of habit. Former griefs and relationships must necessarily intrude less frequently over time, their impact diminishing. The pain becomes sharp and piercing (shrewd), no longer incapacitating.
         The last coping mechanism involves taking a future perspective: imagine that 365 days have been "waded down." Imagine that what today seems like "Murder" will by then seem only to have been "'a fit.'"
         The last two lines are ironic. Death is categorically different than anything that involves continued survival. Dickinson implies that something very significant is lost when we try to reduce the pain caused by the violent death of someone we love.
         That last line, only three syllables, "Murder—wear!", with its deep, murmuring "r"s, yanks us back to the harsh first stanza where "'Dead', Brain—'Dead'" shrieks in horror. In between, when Trouble is shifted about like an ugly lamp, finally taken to some distant room, Dickinson's diction is plain and unobtrusive. That quiet voice is not how she ends the poem, though, and not, probably, how she intends to wade down her days.

1 comment:

  1. (Franklin 1998): The poem appears to have been prompted by the death of Lieutenant Frazar A. Stearns, the son of the president of Amherst College. Frazar, aged twenty-one [two], was killed in action at Newbern, N.C., on 14 March 1862. His funeral was held in Amherst on 22 March. ED wrote of these events in a letter to her Norcross cousins [L255, late March 1862], and in a letter to Samuel Bowles [L256, late March 1862] she used words that parallel the poem:

    [L255, late March 1862. To Francis and Louisa Norcross]

    Dear Children,

    You have done more for me - 'tis least that I can do, to tell you of brave Frazer - "killed at Newbern [New Bern, NC]," darlings. His big heart shot away by a "minie ball."

    I had read of those - I didn't think that Frazer would carry one to Eden with him. Just as he fell, in his soldier's cap, with his sword at his side, Frazer rode through Amherst. Classmates to the right of him, and classmates to the left of him, to guard his narrow face! He fell by the side of Professor Clark, his superior officer - lived ten minutes in a solider's [soldier’s] arms, asked twice for water - murmured just, "My God!" and passed! Sanderson, his classmate, made a box of boards in the night, but [put] the brave boy in, covered with a blanket, rowed six miles to reach the boat, [The Battle of New Bern was 4 miles south of the town, close to the Neuse River, a bay of the Atlantic. Apparently, the Union troop transport ship was anchored 6 miles from the battlefield]- so poor Frazer came. They tell that Colonel Clark cried like a little child when he missed his pet, and could hardly assume his post.

    The bed on which he came was enclosed in a large casket shut entirely, and covered him from head to foot with the sweetest flowers. He went to sleep from the village church. Crowds came to tell him goodnight, choirs sang to him, pastors told how brave he was - early-soldier heart. And the family bowed their heads, as the reeds of the wind shakes.
    So our part in Frazer is done, but you must come next summer, and we will mind [remind] ourselves of this young crusader - too brave that he could fear to die. We will play his tunes - maybe he can hear them; we will try to comfort his broken-hearted Ella, who, as the clergyman said, "gave him peculiar confidence." . . . Austin is stunned completely. Let us love better, child, it's most that's left to do.

    Love from

    [L256, late March 1862, To Samuel Bowles]

    Dear Friend.
    “Austin is chilled - by Frazer's murder - He says - his Brain keeps saying over "Frazer is killed" - "Frazer is killed," just as Father told it - to Him. Two or three words of lead - that dropped so deep, they keep weighing –

    “Tell Austin - how to get over them!”