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15 March 2012

If I shouldn't be alive

If I shouldn't be alive
When the Robins come,
Give the one in Red Cravat,
A Memorial crumb –

If I couldn't thank you,
Being fast asleep,
You will know I'm trying
With my Granite lip!           
                                                            - F210 (1861)  161

This is among Dickinson’s most droll poems and one of my favorites. Thinking of a grave stone as a “Granite lip” has changed the way I view cemeteries. It’s as there is a subterranean crowd all trying to speak but struggling to get the sound out.
Her regret about missing the robins once she dies is consistent with several of her poems celebrating the “Troubadour” of spring. And of course most all robins have a “Red Cravat,” so she’s really hoping that they will all – not just a particular one – be given a “Memorial crumb” in her honor.
American Robin with red Cravat
(Arthur Morris/CORBIS)S

Photo Credit: © Arthur Morris/CORBIS
There are some nice poetic touches in these two playful stanzas. The hard “c” sound in the final word of the last three lines of stanza one lend a pleasing crispness: come, Cravat, and crumb. “Come” and “Crumb” make a very nice rhyme and are even more tightly bound by the intervening slant rhyme of “one.” The “v” in Cravat recalls the “v” in “alive.” There are numerous “m” sounds that complement the crisp “c” sounds: come, Memorial, and crumb. I love the sound of “Memorial crumb” – it murmurs between the lips in a way, sadly, that the Granite lip could never master.
            The second stanza begins with an echo of the first: “If I shouldn’t” and “If I couldn’t.” Ending the poem on a word like “lip” is just a bit outrageous after images of robins and death – and “Granite lip” is just plain funny, especially since the poem up until then has the sound of a formal letter.


  1. Just came across this through a different strand of the Internet and used it here:

    1. you're giving us a vain hope

  2. I appreciate when you draw attention to the sonics of the poem. And this is a wry observation: "I love the sound of “Memorial crumb” – it murmurs between the lips in a way, sadly, that the Granite lip could never master."

  3. Yes, love the RC consonant cluster: Robins Come, Red CRavat, CRumb.

    Don't take those lips for granite!

  4. It’s hard to decide whether ED’s lifelong relationship with death was an affair or a marriage, but her fascination never faltered. Her poems are proof of her commitment and her final letter, to her cousins Frances and Louise Norcross, simply said ,

    “May 1886

    “Little Cousins,
    Called back.

    She died on the 15th.