It don't sound so terrible—quite—as it did—
I run it over—"Dead", Brain—"Dead."
Put it in Latin—left of my school—
Seems it don't shriek so—under rule.
Turn it, a little—full in the face
A Trouble looks bitterest—
Say "When Tomorrow comes this way—
I shall have waded down one Day."
I suppose it will interrupt me some
Till I get accustomed—but then the Tomb
Like other new Things—shows largest—then—
And smaller, by Habit—
It's shrewder then
Put the Thought in advance—a Year—
How like "a fit"—then—
F384 (1862) 426
Dickinson would be no stranger to death--women died more frequently in
childbirth in the 1800s than they do today. Illness took many more
children. She would have known many of these dead in Amherst.
Additionally, the nation was in the thick of the Civil War when she
wrote this poem. While Dickinson unaccountably never addressed the
conflict, she certainly knew men killed in the war. The death in this
poem may refer to a particular man killed by the enemy or dead, perhaps
murdered, by other means.
The poet contemplates various ways
we cope with grief. First, she desensitises herself to the words.
"Dead, dead," she repeats. She translates it into the bit of Latin she
recalls from her school days. It "doesn't shriek so" under the
schoolgirl discipline. Over time, the word "Dead" "don't sound so
terrible--quite--as it did."
Second, the "Trouble" is to be
confronted, looked full in the face. We are told to shift our view, see it full on at the bitterest angle—but then shift the vantage point
just a bit more, just enough to dull the pain but not mask it. We're to
then summon our resolve and proclaim that we can survive even if just by wading through the days, one at a time.
In the third stanza Dickinson expresses
confidence in resilience born of habit. Former griefs and
relationships must necessarily intrude less frequently over time, their
impact diminishing. The pain becomes sharp and piercing (shrewd), no longer incapacitating.
The last coping mechanism involves taking a future perspective: imagine that 365 days have been "waded down." Imagine that
what today seems like "Murder" will by then seem only to have been "'a
The last two lines are ironic. Death is categorically different than anything that
involves continued survival. Dickinson implies that something
very significant is lost when we try to reduce the pain caused by the
violent death of someone we love.
That last line, only
three syllables, "Murder—wear!", with its deep, murmuring "r"s, yanks us
back to the harsh first stanza where "'Dead', Brain—'Dead'" shrieks in
horror. In between, when Trouble is shifted about like an ugly lamp,
finally taken to some distant room, Dickinson's diction is plain and
unobtrusive. That quiet voice is not how she ends the poem, though, and not, probably, how she intends to wade down her days.