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12 May 2013

In falling Timbers buried —

In falling Timbers buried —
There breathed a Man —
Outside — the spades — were plying —
The Lungs — within —

Could He — know — they sought Him —

Could They — know — He breathed —
Horrid Sand Partition —
Neither — could be heard —

Never slacked the Diggers —

But when Spades had done —
Oh, Reward of Anguish,
It was dying — Then —

Many Things — are fruitless —

'Tis a Baffling Earth —
But there is no Gratitude
Like the Grace — of Death —
                                                                     F447 (1862)  J614

I was going to dismiss this poem about how the diggers fight their way through rubble only to find the man just a moment too late. I was going to say the last line was a bit morbid: the would-be rescuers would find no gratitude from a dead man –  or his kin. Their one comfort would be the thought that the trapped man was now dead and out of the reach of suffering.
        But then I thought of Bangladesh, the collapsed factory trapping and killing many women and girls. The death toll has passed 1100 as I write. The diggers there are now, with the amazing exception of a 19-year-old who survived 17 days beneath the rubble, pulling out only dead and decomposing bodies.
Thinking on these rescuers, then, Dickinson’s poem takes on a new relevance. No, the diggers in Bangladesh will find little gratitude although no doubt many people appreciate their efforts. But what they must be confronting over and over, are the dead. How else could they cope with this horrific event if they could not reassure themselves that “there is no Gratitude / Like the Grace — of Death”?
       The last stanza bears some unpacking. “Things,” Dickinson rather vaguely points out, are often “fruitless” and this word carries the twin meanings of “barren” and “pointless.” The unspoken question of “why” points to the poets shrugging dismissal: “’Tis a Baffling Earth.” Our sense of justice and happy endings will be constantly thwarted. The rescuers won’t be in time. But (and that transition is key: note that Dickinson does not use “therefore” or “consequently”) death will come. Lovely easeful death – “the Grace – of Death.”
         “Grace” is one of those rich words, blessed with many meanings. Here it suggests the grace of God – his free and unearned favour; eternal life; privilege; mercifulness; graciousness and beauty; and, finally, a prayer of thanks. Grace doesn’t just apply to the awful death of those trapped in rubble and fallen timber. It applies to all of us and it is with that hope that both the buried and the diggers can bear this baffling life.


  1. I think your focus on the word "grace" is the key to the poem. In her poetry, ED had an intimate, fearless relationship with death -- and this poen is an example of that.

    The poem reminds me a little of the poem "I died for Beauty". It is the separation -- the "Horrid Sand Partition" in this poem and the marble partition between the adjoining rooms in "I died for Beauty". Reading the central image of this poem as a metaphor, the poem is expressing the unbridgable distance, the separation between two persons -- even lovers -- in this life. And death comes as a relief, a act of grace.

    1. I hadn't thought of the partition as a metaphor in the way you discuss – but I think you're right. Dickinson is getting at more than the gap between rescuer and victim.

  2. I like to imagine that Dickinson consciously used the double meanings of both words in the expression 'Baffling Earth' to signal a shift in the poem from the literal to the metaphorical level. Baffle not only means 'bewilder' but also can mean a physical device that prevents the transmission of sound or light. Earth, of course, can mean both dirt or the world. The poem in the last stanza shifts from the literal disaster of people trapped and dying in rubble, to the metaphorical level of people trapped in a painful and confusing world. The resolution in the last two lines is still a little confusing to me.

  3. It was dying-Then

    Many Things-

    I read this as this, leaving out the "are fruitless" and appreciating that her line break allows us, before we thing many things are fruitless, that there is an unseen complexity after dying made up of many things. What those things are must have something to do with the Grace of Death.

  4. ED may say,

    “Many Things — are fruitless —
    'Tis a Baffling Earth —
    But there is no Gratitude
    Like the Grace — of Death —”,

    but she has a marriage to Wadsworth waiting for her in Heaven, so she says. Fortunate for us, she was not proactive to get there.