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30 December 2012

The Morning after Wo—

The Morning after Wo—
‘Tis frequently the Way—
Surpasses all that rose before—
For utter Jubilee—

As Nature did not Care—
And piled her Blossoms on—
The further to parade a Joy
Her Victim stared opon—

The Birds declaim their Tunes—
Pronouncing every word
Like Hammers—Did they know they fell
Like Litanies of Lead—

On here and there—a creature—
They’d modify the Glee
To fit some Crucifical Clef—
Some key of Calvary—
                                                      F398 (1862)  J364

Dickinson makes the point that to those who have suffered a great woe, Nature's beautiful abundance seems excessive and hurtfully alive--especially the day after.

She begins with a bit of hyperbole: On the morning after something terrible has occurred, it often happens that birds and flowers and other joyful outbursts give their most jubilant performances ever. It "Surpasses all that rose before"! Nature seemingly doesn't care about our human grief for she just piles on the blossoms and parades the sort of "Joy" the "Victim" once stared upon, no doubt in delight.
The doleful Mourning Dove's song
might be gloomy enough for the poet
          It is likely that Dickinson is writing about death and the victim is the dead one. It's also clear that this was a spring death rather than an autumnal or winter one. There's an ironic dichotomy there with the end of life occurring in the midst of new life. In numerous earlier poems, Dickinson wrote about flowers and spring as metaphors for rebirth, but in this one she treats spring as a painful contrast with death--painful, at least, to the grieving. All the riotous colors and birdsong feel unseemly (particularly remembering the somber black of Victorian and Puritan funerals), particularly since everyone is probably thinking how much poor dead So-and-So would have loved it.

          The third stanza is my favorite with the birds declaiming, their every "word" falling on the bereaved "Like Hammers." "Did they know" it, the poet wonders? Did they know their songs fell—"Like Litanies of Lead"? Great line, and not just because of the "l" alliteration. Dickinson's question about whether or not the birds know is rhetorical, but it whiffs at implying that there is a bit of cosmic malice about. The universe and its birds may be mocking you. We saw that in F304, "The nearest Dream recedes—unrealized,"where the heavenly bee teases the school boy who chases it only to stand "Staring—bewildered—at the mocking sky" when the bee flies off to the "Royal Clouds."
          At least in this poem an occasional bird modifies its song "To fit some Crucifical Clef" so it would play in "Some key of Calvary." Perhaps that would be the Mourning Dove or other bird that sings in a minor key more fitting of Jesus' crucifixion on Mount Calvary. This modification, however, underscores the idea that nature/the world/the heavens are aware of human lives and feeling.
          For all the cleverness of the poem, I don't feel Dickinson's heart in it completely. The poem has a romantic/romanticizing tone, the "Litanies of Lead" equated with bird song and a parade of blossoms. But it is all well done. In addition to the alliterative "Litanies of Lead," Dickinson continues both musical theme and alliteration with the lovely last two lines with "some Crucifical Clef— / Some key of Calvary—". Such music reminds us of sad, ponderous organ music in a vast cathedral. Now if those pesky robins and song sparrows could just get with the program!


  1. In Line 15, both Franklin and ED’s manuscript have the word 'Crucifixal', not “Crucifical” as above. ED’s adjective is her spelling of 'Crucificial'.

    In Line 16, "Calvary" may refer to a hill just outside Jerusalem's walls and/or to Calvary Presbyterian Church, San Francisco.

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  3. One interpretation is that the poem is about “The Morning after” the literal death of someone ED knew, but nowhere in the poem is there an indication that it was a person who died.

    Rather, Stanza 3 begs us to infer that the “Victim” is ED. In Line 11, the antecedent of the second "they" is "words"; the inference, "the words fell [on me]".

    In Line 8, the antecedent of “Her” is “Nature”, that is, “Nature’s Victim”.

  4. That would be "riffing" not "rifting"; gotta watch those Ts.. :)