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—
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—
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.