Search This Blog

07 September 2011

As by the dead we love to sit

As by the dead we love to sit,
Become so wondrous dear—
As for the lost we grapple
Tho' all the rest are here—

In broken mathematics
We estimate our prize
Vast—in its fading ratio
To our penurious eyes!
                                                  - F 78 (1859)  88

There’s an interesting mathematical metaphor at the heart of this poem.  The first stanza establishes that we esteem one who has recently died at higher value than those still alive. They are 'wondrous dear'. Dickinson chooses the word ‘dear’ to suggest a high price—and also to take advantage of the word’s other meaning as ‘beloved’.  But this valuation is ‘broken mathematics’ – it doesn’t add up. The ratio of dead friends to living is quite small, yet we consider ‘the prize’ to be ‘Vast’. The poet here may be considering ‘the prize’ to be the heavenly reunion. She indicated as much in an introductory note to the poem which was enclosed in a letter to Mrs. Holland. Dickinson remarked that meeting is worth the parting—and when someone dies we have an even more joyous reunion in heaven, thus more than compensating for the dying.
            Problem words are “fading” and “penurious”.  I read it as follows: As time goes by, the ratio fades and we think less frequently and with less emotion of the departed. The once bright and dominating ratio recedes in our mind. How could it be otherwise? We have to be a bit stingy with our emotional outflow or we would soon be mad. So the word ‘penurious’, like ‘dear’, is doing double duty here: it suggests the need to ration our feelings and it also suggests our earthly eyes’ inability to see the larger truths.
          Not many poets could successfully discuss the death of a dear one in terms of value ratios, but Dickinson pulls it off, I think. Her choice of words evoke both the numbers and the emotion. It's a very preachy-Christian-y, mid 1800's idea: we are better off in Heaven than on Earth. Death is a ticket to this great place and we should welcome the death of our friends as offering us just one more incentive to want to go there. 
            The use of ‘grapple’ is interesting, too. We don’t just mourn the dead, we reach desperately for them, struggling with our hearts and minds to either come to grips with the loss or to try fruitlessly to keep them alive in some way. 


  1. when you say that the ratio is quite small, what do you mean?

    1. I meant that 'all the rest' outnumber the departed that one sits beside by a lot.

  2. Mam does she consider it vast even when it is fading?

  3. Frankly, when I reread this poem, I can't answer with any certainty. It's a difficult poem and I'm not sure I would interpret it the same way twice. Do you have any thoughts on it? (This happens a lot -- I struggle with a poem, find some clarity, and then a few years later wonder what I was thinking!)

  4. I looked up ‘prize’, ‘fading’ and ‘ratio’ in the ED lexicon and wonder if the second stanza could mean something like: In broken mathematics we estimate the value (of the departed) to be vast, despite the fading importance to our impoverished eyes.