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01 July 2014

Unit, like Death, for Whom?

Unit, like Death, for Whom?
True, like the Tomb,
Who tells no secret
Told to Him —
The Grave is strict —
Tickets admit
Just two — the Bearer — and the Borne —
And seat — just One —
The Living — tell —
The Dying — but a Syllable —
The Coy Dead — None —
No Chatter — here — No Tea —
So Babbler, and Bohea — stay there —
But Gravity — and Expectation — and Fear —
A tremor just, that all's not sure.
                                                 F543 (1863)  J408

The poem reads as a spontaneous meditation on death as if the poet has come across an open grave in her ambles. She pauses to wonder whose gravesite it is (the essential Dickinson Lexicon gives "unit" the definition of "dwelling place"). But since the "Grave is strict", like the more durable structure of a stone tomb, and "tells no secret", she is unlikely to ever know. 
Dickinson then imagines the burial as a bit of theater or a social event. There are tickets, but unlike theater tickets, there are only two issued: one for the dead and one for the bearer. Only the dead, however, actually get a seat.  

During the funeral the living chat away. Dickinson contrasts this with the dying who but moan or gasp a "Syllable" – perhaps a name, perhaps simply a groan. Those "Coy Dead", though, have nothing to say. Whatever they know they keep to themselves. "No Chatter … No Tea" – the grave is no place for babblers. They and their tea should stay alive and with the living. "Bohea"* is a type of tea, and the Lexicon notes the word is not only the name of a tea but suggests "Bohemian". 
Whether tea drinker, babbler, or Bohemian – all feel something at the grave, and Dickinson names the feelings: Gravity, Expectation, and Fear. The occasion is heavy and serious; it reminds the living that they, too, have an expected date with death and this date is what engenders the fear. But in keeping with the tea and chatter, the fear isn't so very bad. It is just a "tremor", a brief frisson. What seems so sure in daily life suddenly seems not quite so sure.

* Dickinson might have read the poems of Alaric Watts in which case the chattering drinkers of Bohea might have come to her mind. Note the alliteration that goes in alphabetical order from line to line.

"About an age ago, as all agree,
Beauteous Belinda, brewing best Bohea
Carelessly chattered, controverting clean,
Dublin's derisive, disputations dean ..."
Attributed to Alaric A. Watts (1820)


  1. Thanks for this explanation -- and for the reference to the Watts poem. I hadn't heard the word "Bohea" before.

    "Unit" seems to me an odd word choice. I suppose it makes sense -- like an apartment unit. It is followed by "like Death". I suppose death can be thought of as a dwelling place. The word beginning the next line -- "True" means loyal or dependable. Together, the first two lines blend the tangible grave "unit" or "tomb" with intangible "Death". "True" modifies "Death" as well as "Tomb" -- both can be relied on to keep their secrets.

    The poem ends with two beautiful lines and a wonderful off-rhyme between "Fear" and "sure" -- words that are opposite in sense. The poem begins with a question and ends with a deeper uncertainty "not sure".

    1. Dickinson draws out those last three words, too: each one is accented – "all's not sure". Seems to resonate with foreboding!

  2. for bohea possibly also drew from EB Browning's Aurora Leigh speaking about a neighbor who "cuts your morning up / To mince-meat of the very smallest talk, / Then helps to sugar her bohea at night / With your reputation." (1856).

  3. In the spirit of her double-meanings word play, I wonder if she didn’t also mean - in “the Bearer and the Borne - “ the human race personified. We are every one of us “borne” by a “bearer”. We are all headed for the theatre of mortality.

  4. [from OED]

    Bohea tea. The name was given in the beginning of the 18th cent. to the finest kinds of black tea; but the quality now known as ‘Bohea’ is the lowest, being the last crop of the season.


    "The Bohe (or Voiii, so call'd of some Mountains in the Province of Fokien) the very first bud gather'd in the beginning of March."


    "The black teas..beginning with the lowest qualities: Bohea, Congou, Souchong, and Pekoe."

    Presumably, ED uses the 1852 definition because she pairs "Bohea" with "Babblers".

  5. ED tells us her feelings when she stands beside an open grave at a body burial:

    “A tremor just, that all's not sure.”

    ED’s distrust of Christian dogma about life after death generates “just” a shiver of fear “that all's not sure.”