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
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.