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12 April 2015

We do not play on Graves —

We do not play on Graves —
Because there isn't Room —
Besides — it isn't even — it slants
And People come —

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We're fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —
                                                                  F599 (1863)  J467

Although Dickinson writes here with a childish voice, the poem depicts the very real fear adults have of death.
        The child speaker mentions several reasons why the playmates avoid graves for their games. First, the lack of room. While a church graveyard might be be a bit small for play, there is the deeper claustrophobia of the grave itself. Dickinson has written before of being trapped forever in that small, dark place, "Untouched by morning – / And untouched by noon" ["Safe in their alabaster chambers" F124]. To be in the presence of graves is to be reminded of the cramped and buried bones.
        The children also complain that the ground over the graves isn't "even" and that it "slants". While this literally might refer to the settling of the earth, the mounding of the graves, or the tombstones grown akilter, it also suggests the slant and uneven sense of untimely or unwelcome death. Dickinson wrote this poem during the Civil War. In addition to the deaths of children and young women (too often during childbirth), there were the many young men killed in battle. No wonder the ground seems uneven and slant.
        Worse, perhaps, than the uneven and restricted space are the people who come to place flowers on the graves. Their faces "hang" with grief (another echo of death) to the extent the children worry their hearts will drop right out. Such sorrowful hearts are so heavy they might "crush our pretty play". Bummer! But Dickinson makes a sharp point: it isn't only children who wish to avoid the deeply grieved. Adults, too, feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
In the end, the children move their games away "as far / As Enemies", for death is the enemy of the young. They look over their shoulders from time to time to make sure of the distance. And so we all, Dickinson implies, look over our shoulders for the shadow of the grave.

The childish tone of the poem is supported by a series of rather breathless "and"s – five of them, reminding me of the way children will talk of something scary. The poem bubbles rather evenly along, impelled by the 'and's, until grinding to a halt at "Occasionally" – a long, unpoetic word bracketed by dashes. It's almost spooky: we only look occasionally – but maybe we should look more often. Look! There's Death right on our heels!
There is a hint of the Gothic in that and in the ironic contrast between the children and the graveyard they avoid – and even in the dropped and crushing heart.  Further, I wonder if Dickinson was penning a response poem to the heavy meditations of the Graveyard poets, popular in the 18th century. Thomas Gray's "An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard" is one of the best and most enduring of this school (which many consider a precursor to the Gothic).

Another example, pictured here with an illustration by William Blake, is a selection from Edward Young's "Night Thoughts".

How richly were my noontide trances hung
With gorgeous tapestries of pictured joys,
Joy behind joy, in endless perspective!
Till at Death's toll, whose restless iron tongue
Calls daily for his millions at a meal,
Starting I woke, and found myself undone.
Where's now my frenzy's pompous furniture?
The cobweb'd cottage, with its ragged wall
Of mould'ring mud, is royalty to me:
The spider's most attenuated thread,
Is cord, is cable, to man's tender tie
On earthly bliss; it breaks at every breeze. 
"Night Thoughts", object 4; 1797

I like Death's "restless iron tongue" and "frenzy's pompous furniture". I picture Dickinson reading such poems (both at home and at school, no doubt) and deciding to re-imagine the topic in her own inimitable way.


  1. It is interesting to contrast this poem with Walt Whitman's famous poem "A child said, What is the grass?". Both poems begin with a child as an artifice for exploring death -- one playing in a graveyard, one asking a rhetorical question.

    The Dickinson poem articulates a modern view of death, without comfort of religious platitudes. The poem ends with the metaphor of war -- death as the enemy -- and the modern conventional approach of avoiding and ignoring death -- confronting it only "occaisionally" as an event or occaision when a loved one dies. The 19th Century began with an intimacy with death as part of life. New England homes all had parlors used for "laying out" the dead prior to burial. Eighteenth century gravestones have memento mori inscriptions -- admonishing the living to reflect on death. Mid-19th century, the industrial revolution transformed society and the century ended with the rise of hospitals that isolate the sick and the rise of the funeral industry, the "appalling trade", to use ED's phrase. ED's poem anticipates and articulates this -- without transcending the modern conventional view of death.

    ED uses her familiar ballad meter, but the meter is broken in places. In the third line of the first stanza, the meter breaks down to a prose rhythm -- almost the words a child might use to explain the problem of why the grave is inadequate as a playground. And as the poem ends with the beautiful, jarring word occaisionally -- the broken rhythm stresses dissonance -- an unnatural separation of life and death.

    The Whitman poem, by contrast, is entirely in free verse and progresses with startling images, presenting argument after argument leaning toward the unity of life and death, finishing with one of the most powerful lines in poetry: "And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier." The two poems have in common a great unanswered question. It is explicit in the Whitman poem. In the Dickinson poem, the question is still there, but the Dickinson poem is on this side of fear in confronting the question -- and so it is not explicit.

    1. Thank you (oh so belatedly) for exploring this poem along with Whitman's. The difference strikes deep. The resonance is still relevant -- and oh so thought provoking.

  2. BTW, thank you for the Edward Young poem -- I had not heard it before. it is very beautiful.

  3. The image of a heart literally dropping out and upon the grave is quite horrific and gory when you really think about it. "Yucky," the kid in me says.

    This poem was written during the Grand Victorian era. Not only was there a lot of death due to the times, but celebrating death was back in style because the Queen was in mourning and America was still very connected to England.

    1. It seems as if Dickinson was really channeling her youth when that was just the sort of image kids would use. And I imagine kids using their literal imaginations on phrases such as "my heart was breaking", too.

  4. More polemic than poem, carelessly composed:

    Line 1-2

    “We do not play on Graves —
    Because there isn't Room —”

    Lines 7-8

    “We're fearing that their Hearts will drop —
    And crush our pretty play —”

    Make up your mind, ED.