What care the Dead for Day?
'Tis late your Sunrise vex their face —
And Purple Ribaldry — of Morning
Pour as blank on them
As on the Tier of Wall
The Mason builded, yesterday,
And equally as cool —
What care the Dead for Summer?
The Solstice had no Sun
Could waste the Snow before their Gate —
And knew One Bird a Tune —
Could thrill their Mortised Ear
Of all the Birds that be —
This One — beloved of Mankind
Henceforward cherished be —
What care the Dead for Winter?
Themselves as easy freeze —
June Noon — as January Night —
As soon the South — her Breeze
Of Sycamore — or Cinnamon —
Deposit in a Stone
And put a Stone to keep it Warm —
Give Spices — unto Men —
F624 (1863) J592
Dickinson gives no sign of cheer in this bleak poem about death. It is not a cosy rest in a snug coffin or a return to the bosom of earth. Nor is there any indication that departed souls have found a better place. Everything is cold and still, senseless.
The poem begins with a heavy iambic phrase that will be repeated throughout the poem: "What care the Dead". The accented syllables are so stressed that it is almost an effort to say them, as if invoking the heavy, weighted immobility of the dead. In the first two stanzas Dickinson offers Morning with its rooster herald and its purple sunrise. But it is too late for the dead. Sunrise colors are now as blank to them as the surface of a new wall (perhaps that of a crypt) – and the risen sun is cool as its smooth marble.
Summer makes its appearance in the next two stanzas but also to no avail. The cold snow of death cannot melted or wasted by even the solstice sun. If only a bird could find a tune that could be heard in the grave it would be forever 'beloved' and 'cherished' by Mankind. Dickinson, whose poetry reveals a deep love of birds, reminds us by these passages of the joys of being alive. There is the sky with all its colors, the warmth of the sun, the "thrill" of birdsong.
The final two stanzas reflect on the coldness of death. Why should the dead worry about winter when they are as frozen in June as January? Winters' effects are as likely to disturb them as spices from the south, delivered on the wind, are to penetrate their stony tombs beneath their stony markers.
The poem's tone is sad, bitter, and elegiac. I see the poet at graveside or imagining herself at graveside contemplating death. With the Civil War losing tens of thousands of soldiers in the year this poem was written, it's no wonder Dickinson's thoughts would turn to the dead. With this in mind, a second, expanded reading of the poem is possible.
|Original and current Purple Hearts with their ribbons
The second stanza continues with memorialization. The stone masons build crypts, monuments and tombs for the dead – all of which are as meaningless or 'blank' as the Purple Ribaldry of Morning. The stone walls have no more warmth for the dead than the impotent sun.
The wrongness of these deaths is mirrored in the meter. While the poem is written in regular ballad meter, that last line of the first stanza is extremely irregular. It should be three iambic feet, just like all the rest of the stanzas' closing lines. Instead, Dickinson added "of Morning". The extra syllables and the trailing, unaccented ending (a "feminine" ending in poetry terms) call attention to themselves. We are meant to see the dawn colors as those of mourning – and to read what follows as memorial. That "Tier of Wall" isn't just a new wing off the kitchen.
It might be too much to read the One Bird's tune as "Taps," the solo funereal bugle call that originated in the Civil War, but that's what I hear when I read the poem as part of Dickinson's war opus.
The final image of the poem conjures a fragrant breeze from the South that is as likely to donate its spices as the dead are to care about winter. Despite being teasingly scented with spice, there is no way the southern wind is going to sweeten the sleep of the Union dead. The imagery and diction here make this a difficult stanza and I'm not confident in my interpretation. Dickinson's use of "Men" certainly makes no distinction between those of the North and those of the South.
But what care the Dead about these distinctions of North versus South, about valor in battle? Their eternity is a cold blank.
The notion that the dead are senseless, that time has lost meaning, that they are in a blank, cold, quiet place indefinitely if not forever, is found in a few other Dickinson poems. In "As far from pity, as complaint" (F364) Dickinson describes the dead as being "numb to Revelation", as "far from time – as History"; and while the corpse is unresponsive, "Color's Revelations break – and blaze – the Butterflies!"
Dickinson pens a couple of stanzas on the same theme in "A long – long Sleep – A famous – Sleep" (F463). Here the dead "bask the Centuries away" but never respond to morning, "Nor once look up – for Noon". Perhaps the most famous of these poems is "Safe in their alabaster chambers" (F124) where the dead sleep through eons as "firmanents – row" and "Worlds scoop their Arcs".
Dickinson in these poems reminds us in an awe-full way to open our eyes and use all our senses while we are still living under the sun. I am reminded of Solomon's wisdom book, Ecclesiastes – a Biblical book Dickinson no doubt studied – particularly Chapter 9. Here, after discussing the finality and equality of death ("All things come alike to all"), Solomon advises his readers to "eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart," and that "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest."
This is also the chapter where Solomon instructs us to "Let thy garments be always white". I'd love to look at the Dickinson family bible just to see the notes and underlinings …