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07 July 2013

'Tis good — the looking back on Grief —

'Tis good — the looking back on Grief —
To re-endure a Day —
We thought the Mighty Funeral —
Of All Conceived Joy —

To recollect how Busy Grass

Did meddle — one by one —
Till all the Grief with Summer — waved
And none could see the stone.

And though the Woe you have Today

Be larger — As the Sea
Exceeds its Unremembered Drop —
They're Water — equally —
                                                                             F472 (1862)  J660

Dickinson has written about despair and the crippling effect it has on psyche and soul (recall "The Soul has Bandaged moments" where the Soul has "shackles on the plumed feet, / And staples, in the Song" ). Grief, however, is different. Dickinson can "Wade Grief" (F312), has strategies for coping with it, and believes that time can indeed heal sorrows.
         That's the gist of this poem. Take time to look back on grief and get some perspective, she advises. No matter how terrible something was, even if at the time you thought it meant the "Funeral – / Of all Conceived Joy" (notice how these words are made even more ponderous and weighty by being all capped), the passage of time dulls the pain to the point of imperceptibility.
          Dickinson compares the healing distractions of daily living to the "Busy Grass": blade by blade, small task by small task, the grief is covered over. I love the image of the grass meddling with the fresh grave, growing thick and tall until it reaches the top of the gravestone and waves in the summer breeze.* Just so, is grief covered over by a thousand thousand little conversations, new worries and new joys, and all the myriad things that must be done every day.
         The third stanza develops grief as a rather fungible emotion. One might suffer a "Woe" so much larger than the Funeral-Of-All-Conceived-Joy variety that it would be as if a drop of sea water were held up against the whole sea. The Sea might look impossibly daunting, but just like the drop, it will eventually run off , evaporate, or sink into the earth. Both are "Water – equally."
    It's a comforting thought and I think the poem is meant to comfort.
Photo: Adrian Pingstone

Dickinson must have learned something about coping with grief between the time she wrote F423, "The first Day's Night had come," and this poem. In the former, the narrator looks back after some years on two days where one terrible thing was followed by something twice as bad. Time has not healed these wounds, however. She does not "feel the same" as the person she had been. Her "Brain keeps giggling," and she wonders if she isn't mad.

         This sense of deep change was presaged in F372, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," where the mourners endure an "Hour of Lead" which, "if outlived," is followed by something like freezing to death: "First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –".
         With those greater poems in mind, the comfort inherent in this one rings a little hollow.

* Whitman also wrote about the grass of graves, but from a completely different angle. As part of an answer to a child's question about what grass is, he says that it is "the beautiful uncut hair of graves" and that "the smallest sprouts show there is really no death." There is comfort to be found in this transformation: the graves of soldiers become life sources.
        Dickinson's poem finds comfort in a different place as she depicts a social and domestic quality of the world life fabric. Her grass "meddles" and tidily tucks grief beneath a coverlet of summer as if the world were directed by a kindly mother (this recalls "The Earth lays back these tired lives / In her mysterious Drawers—" from F417, "The Months have ends – the Years–a knot" ).


  1. Thanks. I agree, "meddling" grass is a nice image.

    I find the poem a little puzzling. the image of grass is an obscuring of the emotion of grief -- the stone (grief) is still behind the meddling grass. Then the last stanza speaks from the present tense -- "the Woe you have today" -- and compares this as a Sea to the "Unremembered Drop". Is this a new Woe? If it is, and the old grief is unremembered, then how does one "look back" and "re-endure" what is unremembered? If it is the old grief that is still experienced as the sea, then is the unremembered drop the diminishing of a portion of that grief by time? I guess I lean toward the latter, although I am not satisfied with this. I think the ambiguity is a flaw in the poem.

    ED, of course, wrote a lot on grief and some of her most powerful poems convey grief in the present tense or involve a precise parsing of the experience and gradations of grief. One of my favorites is "Grief is a Mouse" -- it touches on so many subtleties -- from the physical experience of grief as a gnawing in the breast, to the use of distraction in public to direct attention away from the pain ("Grief is a juggler", to the dangers of wallowing in grief ("Grief is a gourmand"). It ends with "Best grief is tongueless, before he'll tell, burn hin in the public square, his ashes will, possibly -- if not, how then know, for a rack couldn't coax a syllable now" (sorry for paraphasing -- from memory).

    This poem, ". . . looking back on Grief" seems to be dealing with the ashes of grief from "Grief is a Mouse" -- after the poet can find words again.

    1. Thanks - I am looking forward to encountering those grief poems. I think the grass is simply and metaphorically the healing layers between us and what lies beneath the stone. The grief isn't raw, but softened: with the passage of time the grave can be visited with some pleasure taken in memories, contemplation, and nostalgia.
      The sea's relationship to the drop is a bit troubling. It's as if we shed a diseased cell: we wouldn't remember it or notice it were gone, but it might cause great grief to some other entity. The implication is that Woe is one big thing and we are suffering drops and waves of it as we go through life. Not a very optimistic outlook! But Dickinson's consolation is that Woe fades as surely as grass grows.

  2. Yes but the drop and the sea
    - the small griefs and the overwhelming accumulation of them - are still water, and water is a necessary and fundamental (80%!) part of us,

  3. Franklin’s estimated date that ED copied F472 into Fascicle 22 is “about late 1862”.

    Although ED intends the poem to be universal, here is one specific historical interpretation with line numbers added. ED's suggested words & phrases are [IN CAPS & BRACKETS]. My annotations are [in lower case & brackets]. Bon voyage 😊:

    1. 'Tis good [WELL]— the looking back on Grief —
    2. To re-endure a Day — [May 1, 1862; Wadsworth and family sailed from New York]
    3. We [I] thought the Mighty [MONSTROUS] Funeral —
    4. Of All Conceived Joy —

    5. To recollect how Busy Grass [leaves/days]
    6. Did meddle [TAMPER] [grow/pass] — one by one —
    7. Till all the Grief with Summer [May 1 to “about late 1862”]— waved [BLEW]
    8. And none could see the stone. [emotional stone of ED’s facial expression]

    9. And though the Woe [interval of time since May 1] you [I] have Today [“about late 1862”]
    10. Be larger — As the Sea [Both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans separated her from Wadsworth]
    11. Exceeds its Unremembered [UNDEVELOPED] Drop — [New York harbor on May 1]
    12. They're Water [both just intervals of time] — equally [qualitatively] — [THEY PROVE ONE CHEMISTRY — ]