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13 August 2012

To die—takes just a little while—

To die—takes just a little while—
They say it doesn't hurt—
It's only fainter—by degrees—
And then—it's out of sight—

A darker Ribbon—for a Day—
A Crape upon the Hat—
And then the pretty sunshine comes—
And helps us to forget—

The absent—mystic—creature—
That but for love of us—
Had gone to sleep—that soundest time—
Without the weariness –
                                                            F315 (1862)  255

Dickinson wields two strikes against the dying process here: 1) the dying person is quickly forgotten; and 2) dying might be less exhausting if the person weren’t surrounded by loved ones and visitors.
Crape mourning cap and ribbons
            In the first stanza she dismisses the gravity of death: it takes “just a little while” and “it doesn’t hurt.” The life of the dying becomes gradually “fainter” until it fades completely from sight. And then, the poet continues, we put on a black ribbon and a bit of crape “for a Day” to show our sorrow and respect. (Crape is a crisp, wrinkled fabric used either to accent a mourning dress or as the primary material. What made it attractive for mourning is that the material reflects no light at all, making it extremely drab—unlike the silks that ladies of the day favored. Black, drab, and stiff. What could be a better fabric for saying good-by?)
            The mourning is soon put by, however, when “the pretty sunshine comes.” This sentiment seems to contradict the very raw grief she expresses in earlier poems for those loved ones of her own who died. As an example, in “I got so I could take his name,” she writes:

I got so I could take his name—
Without—Tremendous gain—
That Stop-sensation—on my Soul—
And Thunder—in the Room—

as if she had been suffering intensely over a man’s death for quite a long time.
           To be fair, she also wrote poetry about how life does indeed just keep on in its petty pace from day to day despite death. In “If I should die,” she claims that knowing this “keeps the soul serene.”

'Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—
That Commerce will continue—
And Trades as briskly fly—
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene—

The last stanza bears a bit more of the Dickinsonian touch that I always look for. The dead person has been transformed into a “mystic—creature.” That mystery is at the heart of many of Dickinson’s poems. She was transfixed by what happened at the moment of death, what came immediately after, and what would be happening eons later. In this poem she simply looks at the dying process from the vantage of the one dying: If it weren’t for our “love”—and by this I think she means all the tearful farewells and cheery chitchats that demand the sufferer’s attention—death would go a lot more peacefully.
            It’s sad to think of someone dying after being wearied by visitors. Dickinson is suggesting that we try to let that loved one die, the “soundest” sleep of all, without all the disruption and fuss.
            For all that it makes a rather cutting criticism of Victorian death practices, the poem is quite gentle. It starts by soothing us about death: it doesn’t take that long, it doesn’t hurt. Then the poet moves to the mourners: they may feel very sad for a short while but then life moves on, the sun comes out, and we go back to the business of being alive. Even the last stanza is gentle: the dying person puts up all the visitors no matter how taxing because he or she loves them. And then, weary at last, slips off into profound rest.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Susan, great insight. What I find interesting about this poem is its euphemistic tone, with the act of dying being characterised as brief and painless, and death itself being seen as akin to a restful and eternal 'sleep'. It's as if Dickinson is denying, or disguising, the agonising reality of death. Furthermore, the funeral of the dead person is almost described as an excuse to get dressed up in special attire, rather than as an occasion to pay tribute to them and commemorate their loss. Indeed, aside from the word 'Day', the only nouns in the poem that are capitalised are ones that refer to items of fashion ('Ribbon', 'Crape' and 'Hat'). It's noteworthy that this use of capitalisation contrasts with the lower case 'c' in the noun 'creature', which refers to the deceased individual. By emphasising the funereal garments, temporarily donned for just a single Day, Dickinson appears to reduce grief to a mere passing moment in one's life. And yet the reality, as powerfully expressed in her other death-related poems, can in fact be rather different.

    In addition, in keeping with the euphemistic tone of the poem, I wonder if lines 3 and 4, 'It's only fainter - by degrees/ And then - it's out of sight -' could also be seen to refer to the gradual fading of the dead in our memory until the point of forgetfulness?

    I am similarly drawn to the intriguing references to the dead person as 'absent' and 'mystic'. For the living, the dead become the subject of conjecture and, not knowing what has become of them, we can only speculate about the enigma of the afterlife.

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  2. I read the last stanza a bit differently, the deceased is already dead, in stanza one, and buried, in stanza 2; and only lives as consciousness now in the minds of those who love and remember them as mortal beings, for they themselves are now forevermore beyond the realm of consciousness in eternal, blissful Sleep, unburdened by any mortal weariness

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  3. I read the last stanza a bit differently, the deceased is already dead, in stanza one, and buried, in stanza 2; and only lives as consciousness now in the minds of those who love and remember them as mortal beings, for they themselves are now forevermore beyond the realm of consciousness in eternal, blissful Sleep, unburdened by any mortal weariness

    ReplyDelete