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.

  5. Perhaps the ratio here is the difference between our “vast” estimation, or over-estimation, of the departed and our more open”penurious” estimate of the living who are here with us. In eulogizing our loved ones, we add up the positives and ignore the negatives — a kind of “broken mathematics.” The word “ratio” in ED’s time as now means the difference in the quantities of two things. Here, that could be the difference between the love we feel and the love we express toward loved ones — a ratio that all but disappears at death when the loved one becomes “wondrous dear” even to our penurious eyes.

    I am grappling myself here for meaning. Not sure my interpretation holds up. But I have an ulterior motive in posting, and that is to find out if you (Susan) are still working on your brilliant Dickinson project. No posts in 2022, and I am worried! I have two sources I turn to when I am grappling with an ED poem: Helen Vendler and you. And your comments (and, often, reader comments) are as good or better than Harvard’s professor emerita. The Prowling Bee is a gift to the world, and I hope you are well and still at it.

    1. Pairing my name with Helen Vendler?? Best compliment I can imagine. I have a couple of her books and love her work. As to my lack of work on the blog... my life has gotten progressively more complicated in the past few years and so I've had time only for interactions with readers. But I long to get back to Dickinson diving.

      Thank you for encouragement and kind words.!

  6. In early 1859 ED composed ‘As by the dead we love to sit’ and sent it with a thank-you note to Mrs. J.G. Holland, a lifelong friend and correspondent and calm mother/mentor who was nine years older and happily married. The tone of the poem is unusual for ED because it focuses on valuing living friends instead of obsessing about death: We love to sit by the dead, thinking of their virtues and forgetting faults and reminiscing about other lost friends, rather than thinking about those who are still alive. In our miscalculating mind’s eye we focus on the dead, even as our memory of them fades from faulty mental vision.

    Mrs. Holland must have loved this gift from her younger poet friend.

  7. I took this to be about the intoxication of thinking about the dead. We think about our loved one gone, our consciousness becomes “wonderous” and “dear” as we contemplate existence, that it is more compelling than life on earth. We fool ourselves into thinking we can comprehend death (broken math), and that desire to understand is almost covetous (a prize). Yet, even if it is motivated by an ego centric attempt to reveal existence, the very act of peering through time delivers a hit of awestruck wonder, the fading ratio being life with : life without. That awesome feeling makes us realize how small we are and how we don’t actually have any understanding of our cosmic place.

    I recently lost someone so maybe I’m mapping on this what I feel. But grief comes in waves, and I want some kind of certainty in it, some explanation. I want it to be tidy. And I start with that desire and I always end up in an unraveled, unknowing mystified place.

    1. Thank you -- 'awestruck wonder' and awe in general are integral to many of Dickinson's poems. I like the way you center it in this poem.