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29 January 2015

I'm sorry for the Dead — Today —

I'm sorry for the Dead — Today —
It's such congenial times
Old Neighbors have at fences —
It's time o' year for Hay,

And Broad — Sunburned Acquaintance
Discourse between the Toil —
And laugh, a homely species
That makes the Fences smile —

It seems so straight to lie away
From all of the noise of Fields —
The Busy Carts — the fragrant Cocks —
The Mower's metre — Steals —

A Trouble lest they're homesick —
Those Farmers — and their Wives —
Set separate from the Farming —
And all the Neighbors' lives —

A Wonder if the Sepulchre
Don't feel a lonesome way —
When Men — and Boys — and Carts — and June,
Go down the Fields to "Hay" —
                                                             F582 (1863)  J529

Dickinson dabbles with the lyric pastoral ballad here in this tip of the hat to Romantic Era poets such as William Wordsworth. She includes the brawny, "Sunburned" farmers and their wives toiling, laughing, and driving their horse-drawn hay carts. Unlike the Romantics' hushed, lush, reverent tones, however, Dickinson adopts a rather perky colloquial voice. And unlike the Romantics' somber meditation on Death and the transience of life, Dickinson's poem is a rather facile comparison between the living farmers and the dead. The living are cheerfully working away, particularly in the "time o' year for Hay", while the dead are confined in their narrow graves. She worries about whether or not they are "homesick" or "lonesome". She doesn't express any notion that they might be in some better place, some heaven; so despite the perky tone the underpinning of the poem is rather grim.
Hay cock by a congenial fence (or wall, if you will)

While Dickinson must have known farm families and seen them at work and play, she never spent a season at work in a field. And although she is capable of extending her imagination to very challenging situations, in this poem she relies on stereotypes. Harvest is a very "congenial" time, what with all the laughing and talking over fences. Dickinson oddly phrases this chatting as "Discourse" which, for me, throws a bit of a wrench into the diction. Their "homely" sort of laughter makes even the old, weathered fences smile. The scene might be out of a Budweiser commercial. All it needs are a few frothing mugs.
        In the last stanza we see the men and boys with their hay carts rolling down the country roads to start the haying. Dickinson wonders if such a sight doesn't make the dead feel lonesome. This is something of an inverted metaphor. I think (without digging for evidence) that the image of folks going gaily on to Harvest time in the glorious light of June, is more often likened to going off to Heaven's harvest. Death usually creates the "Mower's metre" with his mighty scythe. 
Loading up the hay cart
        Instead, the dead farmers and their wives are now "set separate" from any discourse about their neighbor's doings, from any of those lively farm activities, and far, far away from the bucolic glories of June. The poem ends as a stark contrast between the activities, however idealized, of the living and the stiff and complete immobility of the dead.


  1. In this poem, there is also something of the Latin pastoral poetry that ED studied in her school days. Horace used images of farm and harvest in his poem that popularized the phrase "carpe diem". In this poem there is also the sense of the need to "make hay while the sun shines."

    But, as you point out, the story is told from the perspective of the dead -- projecting on the dead a wistful, lonesome, sentience. The image of "flesh as grass" is here -- as it is in Whitman's Leaves of Grass -- the dead participate in life as object, if not as subject. Overall, the poem has a sense of death integrated in life -- the haying is an event that celebrates death in life.

  2. Franklin estimates ED copied ‘I'm sorry for the Dead — Today’ into Fascicle 25 “about summer 1863”. Given Stanza 1, she probably also composed it then.

  3. An hour from now my self-imposed “death” will end with my covid quarantine. Yes, Susan, haycarts rolling outside do cause loneliness, but TPB helps a lot.