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23 February 2013

The Color of the Grave is Green

The Color of the Grave is Green –
The Outer Grave –  I mean –
You would not know it from the Field –
Except it own a Stone –

To help the fond –  to find it –

Too infinite asleep
To stop and tell them where it is –
But just a Daisy –  deep –

The Color of the Grave is white –

The outer Grave –  I mean –
You would not know it from the Drifts –
In Winter –  till the Sun –

Has furrowed out the Aisles –

Then –  higher than the Land
The little Dwelling Houses rise
Where each –  has left a friend –

The Color of the Grave within –

The Duplicate –  I mean –
Not all the Snows could make it white –
Not all the Summers –  Green –

You've seen the Color –  maybe –

Upon a Bonnet bound –
When that you met it with before –
The Ferret –  Cannot find –
                                                                            F424 (1862)  J411

This poem lulls us into thinking it is a simple meditation on the permanence of death juxtaposed against the changing of the seasons. Dickinson sticks pretty closely to common ballad or hymn form: iambic pentameter with alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines in each four-line stanza, and with the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyming. The poem has three sections, each beginning with “The Color of the Grave.” But while the first two sections depict the grave in summer and in winter scenes, the third goes deep into Dickinson territory – the darkness within. Because of the simple structure and diction of the poem, the darkness comes as a surprisingly sharp twist.

       We get a couple of clues early on, however. In both the first and third stanzas where she describes the green and then the white grave, she specifies it is “The Outer Grave” that she is referring to. Sure enough, the poem ends with a description of “the Grave within.” Dickinson is an intensely observant and inward-turning poet. Although some of her poems are nature sketches, many arise from intense inner scrutiny. She does not shy away from what she finds there, even though she confronts death, loss, or horror nearly every time.
The graveyard near Dickinson's home.
courtesy: N. Taylor Collins
, 2013

Dover, DE

The poem begins at a graveyard in the green season. The grass covers the graves so naturally that without the gravestones you would think you were in a grassy field or meadow. Each grave owns its “Stone” as a marker for the “fond” folks who come to pay their respects. The dead themselves are not able to help the living find their graves: their sleep is too “infinite.” Without the gravestone we would just walk over the buried dead and never know it although they are just below our feet, “just a Daisy – deep.” That’s deeper than it sounds, however. Daisies are hardy perennials and so their roots are thick and deep.

       The next two stanzas take us into winter. The graveyard is covered with snow, sometimes so deeply that the drifts cover even the headstones. There’s no way you can find the grave you are looking for until clear days arrive and the sun melts the snow and furrows out the “Aisles” between the graves. The “little Dwelling Houses” would be the grave covers above the ground that, in addition to tombstones, mark the grave. Some of them look like ornamented tombs; others are more fanciful. But Dickinson might simply have been referring to the tombstones as indicative of the “Houses” of the dead.

The last section takes us to the “Grave within.” This is a “Duplicate” of the buried coffin that holds the dead. We hold our own death within us, she is implying. Or perhaps she is saying that when we lose a loved one there is a dark grave inside us marking the place where once we kept their living love. Regardless, this inner grave is neither white like the pure and mysterious snow nor green like the fertile summer fields. Instead, it is black like the crepe ribbons Victorian ladies would wear on their hats when in mourning.

       “You’ve” seen this color before, she tells us, taking the seemingly simple poem directly to the reader. But unlike graves dug in the cemetery, the inner grave cannot be accessed by even such an efficient hunter as a ferret. These excellent predators have been used for rabbiting for hundreds of years as they can flush a rabbit from the deepest of dens. The darkness of the inner grave is safe from such depredations. Even the ferret cannot find it.


  1. The picture you have attached is very interesting, not least because of the couple of white flowers (daisies perhaps) in the front. I think the daisy in the last line of second stanza also prepares the imagery for the white color in the next section.

  2. Thanks - that's a good point about how Dickinson sets up the white. In looking at that I noticed how the sun furrows out the aisles between graves -- a verb that prepares us for the amazing ferret.

  3. That's true...amazing of my top favorites!

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  5. i wasn't able to interpret this poem until i read your analysis. you're right about the ferret in the last line, it pretty much informs everything leading up to it. my own take on what Dickinson is trying to say is that death is even beyond darkness (since even an animal adapted to see in the dark can't find it). there's nothing in our everyday experience, not the green of the grass nor the white of the snow, that we can point to directly and say 'that's what death is like,' because death is a perfect void. all we have to go on are mere representations (in this case outer graves)

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  7. The tortured syntax of Line 23 (next-to-last), “When that you met it with before”, translated into English means “When you met with that before”, and the ferret can’t find when you last saw a black mourning pin or badge on a bonnet or hat.

    But ED can remember when she “met with it before”:

    [L773 to James D Clark 1882],

    “Dear friend,

    Perhaps Affection has always one question more which it forgot to ask.

    I thought it possible you might tell me if our lost one [Charles Wadsworth] had Brother or Sister.

    I knew he once had a Mother, for when he first came to see me [in 1860], there was Black with his Hat. "Some one has died" I said. "Yes" - he said, "his Mother."

    "Did you love her," I asked. He replied with his deep "Yes."
    E. Dickinson.”