To re-endure a Day —
We thought the Mighty Funeral —
Of All Conceived Joy —
To recollect how Busy Grass
Did meddle — one by one —
Till all the Grief with Summer — waved
And none could see the stone.
And though the Woe you have Today
Be larger — As the Sea
Exceeds its Unremembered Drop —
They're Water — equally —
F472 (1862) J660
Dickinson has written about despair and the crippling effect it has on psyche and soul (recall "The Soul has Bandaged moments" where the Soul has "shackles on the plumed feet, / And staples, in the Song" ). Grief, however, is different. Dickinson can "Wade Grief" (F312), has strategies for coping with it, and believes that time can indeed heal sorrows.
That's the gist of this poem. Take time to look back on grief and get some perspective, she advises. No matter how terrible something was, even if at the time you thought it meant the "Funeral – / Of all Conceived Joy" (notice how these words are made even more ponderous and weighty by being all capped), the passage of time dulls the pain to the point of imperceptibility.
Dickinson compares the healing distractions of daily living to the "Busy Grass": blade by blade, small task by small task, the grief is covered over. I love the image of the grass meddling with the fresh grave, growing thick and tall until it reaches the top of the gravestone and waves in the summer breeze.* Just so, is grief covered over by a thousand thousand little conversations, new worries and new joys, and all the myriad things that must be done every day.
The third stanza develops grief as a rather fungible emotion. One might suffer a "Woe" so much larger than the Funeral-Of-All-Conceived-Joy variety that it would be as if a drop of sea water were held up against the whole sea. The Sea might look impossibly daunting, but just like the drop, it will eventually run off , evaporate, or sink into the earth. Both are "Water – equally."
It's a comforting thought and I think the poem is meant to comfort.
|Photo: Adrian Pingstone|
Dickinson must have learned something about coping with grief between the time she wrote F423, "The first Day's Night had come," and this poem. In the former, the narrator looks back after some years on two days where one terrible thing was followed by something twice as bad. Time has not healed these wounds, however. She does not "feel the same" as the person she had been. Her "Brain keeps giggling," and she wonders if she isn't mad.
This sense of deep change was presaged in F372, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," where the mourners endure an "Hour of Lead" which, "if outlived," is followed by something like freezing to death: "First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –".
With those greater poems in mind, the comfort inherent in this one rings a little hollow.
* Whitman also wrote about the grass of graves, but from a completely different angle. As part of an answer to a child's question about what grass is, he says that it is "the beautiful uncut hair of graves" and that "the smallest sprouts show there is really no death." There is comfort to be found in this transformation: the graves of soldiers become life sources.
Dickinson's poem finds comfort in a different place as she depicts a social and domestic quality of the world life fabric. Her grass "meddles" and tidily tucks grief beneath a coverlet of summer as if the world were directed by a kindly mother (this recalls "The Earth lays back these tired lives / In her mysterious Drawers—" from F417, "The Months have ends – the Years–a knot" ).