Out of sound – Out of Sight –
"Happy"? Which is wiser –
You, or the Wind?
"Conscious"? Won't you ask that –
Of the low Ground?
"Homesick"? Many met it –
Even through them – This
Cannot testify –
Themself – as dumb –
F434 (1862) J417
I would classify this poem as one of Dickinson’s wisdom poems, albeit a slightly bitter one.
Perhaps Dickinson had been thinking of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy as she composed this poem. Both poets were drawn by the mysteries beyond the grave that are unknowable to the living. Shakespeare has Hamlet say as much:
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others we know not of.
Dickinson here expands on the idea of death as an “undiscovered country,” as she drily asks a series of rhetorical questions, the answers to which are all unknown. With her flair for the dramatic (so weirdly and wonderfully wedded to her ambiguous abstractions), she begins with a compelling imperative: “Is it dead – Find it.” The “it,” as in F431, refers to a person. Unlike that poem, however, this time Dickinson seems to be referring to the soul as well as the body.
A question about consciousness follows. Are the dead conscious? This is the million-dollar question, for sure. If only we knew whether or not we existed in some conscious form after death, our lives and the world would be very different. Dickinson summarily dismisses the question. Ask the grave, she says. She calls it the “low Ground,” adding a dollop of negativity.
The second stanza continues, with a question about whether or not the dead are homesick. Her dismissive answer is that even though there are a lot of dead, none of them can answer for the particular departed one for they are as speechless, as “dumb,” as he/she.
Just three poems ago she was telling a corpse that she would see it again. In numerous other poems she also talks about an afterlife where people maintain their earthly identities in perfected form. I read the questions, then, as germinating in both skepticism and bitterness. With Dickinson telling us that there are no answers, she is also saying that anything she believes about an afterlife is not based on empirical evidence. There is only the great silence at the other side of that wall.
The bitter flavor of the poem seems to follow the outpourings of love and grief in F431. In that poem, after “making signs” to the dead beloved so that he would notice her, she was left alone and bereft. There was no reply, no sign given in return. And so Dickinson challenges the reader. Can you find it? Can you get a reply where I didn’t?
The unsatisfactory conclusion is mirrored in the poem’s construction: one has to look hard to find even any slant rhymes (perhaps “Wind” and Ground”); there is no regular meter or stanza form. Instead, what we have is much like modern free verse. Dickinson marks a couple of places for emphasis by making them slow reads: “low Ground” is one; “Themself – as dumb” is the other. Both lines end their stanzas on a note devoid of hope. And yet, comfort might be taken in the great void that swallows up the dead. Where they are, how they feel, if they even are conscious at all is unknown. So “eat, drink, and be merry,” the advice from Solomon (Ecclesiastes 8:15), another wisdom poet, is perhaps after all the best way to live.