'Tis Living — hurts us more —
But Dying — is a different way —
A kind behind the Door —
The Southern Custom — of the Bird —
That ere the Frosts are due —
Accepts a better Latitude —
We — are the Birds — that stay.
The Shiverers round Farmers' doors —
For whose reluctant Crumb —
We stipulate — till pitying Snows
Persuade our Feathers Home.
F528 (1863) J335
For a little context on the poem I'm borrowing David Preest's excellent introduction to it:
This poem ends a letter (L278) Emily wrote to her cousins, Louise and FrancesNorcross, on the death of their father on 7 January 1863. She is at her tenderest in condolence letters such as this and in another letter (L279) written to her cousins a week or so later. In the first letter she tactfully asks them, ‘Wasn’t dear papa so tired always after mamma went, and wasn’t it almost sweet to think of the two together these winter nights? The grief is our side, darlings, and the glad is theirs.’ …. And she ends the letter with these words which lead into the poem, ‘Good-night. Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray.
I find those final words quite moving. The poem is like a song. Written in hymn form (alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines in quatrains), you could sing it quite easily to the tune of "Amazing Grace". Like a good hymn, it is a very visual poem. We can see the newly dead finding a hidden path behind the door between life and death. Then, shifting back to this world, we see the cold and hopeful birds hanging about a farmhouse. We imagine the farmer tossing out a scanty handful of crumbs from time to time, the birds swooping down hungrily from nearby trees.
The last quatrain is an anti-prayer from the poet who "cannot pray". Over-wintering birds may hover around praying for crumbs, but it is ultimately the soft, lovely, lethal snow that comes to them – to us – unbidden. Prayer might bring crumbs, but the true home, the "better Latitude", is what we should aim for. Those who stay behind hoping for the farmers' largesse seem pitiful to us and also, it would seem, to the delivering "pitying Snows".
We have seen both the niggardly crumb and the ease of snow in earlier poems. In “Victory comes late” (F195) the speaker bitterly complains about dining on crumbs. There the table of plenty is Victory and it is God who keeps it out of reach. Those yearning for its bounty must “dine on tiptoe". "Was God so economical?" the poet asks, and the same question might be asked of the farmer so stingy with his crumbs.
In contrast, the snow seems generous. Dickinson has used snow imagery in several ways – as purity, leaves of poetry, steadfastness, and death. As a metaphor for death, it presages spring and rebirth; it is "that long town of White – to cross – / Before the Blackbirds sing!" (F265). In F372, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes –", we see a snow death: "First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –". While at first there is cold and growing stupefaction, there is finally the assent to snow's persuasion, a gentle letting go.
The last line of the poem reminds me of "A Bird came down the Walk" (F359) where the poet offers a bird a crumb (not at all reluctantly). The bird is too wary to accept, however, "And he unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer Home –". The image here, as in the poem under discussion, is of a gentle ending. The bird's trip "Home" is as soft as butterflies leaping "plashless" off "Banks of Noon". The snow is likewise soft: it persuades without ruffling a feather.
And who but Dickinson could phrase death as "Persuade our Feathers Home"? It's a beautiful image that at once engages the association of bird with spirit as well as home with heaven. As a consolatory poem the ending is exceedingly lovely and gracious.
As a final thought on Dickinson's statement that she cannot pray, she covered that ground a couple of poems ago in "My period had come for Prayer –" (F525). Although she felt an urgent need to pray, she realized that the God to whom she was trying to speak was nowhere to be found. Instead, she found "Vast Prairies of Air", Infinitude, Silence, and Creation. Her epiphany was that prayer was perhaps irrelevant, that to confront the Silence is to enter into worship.