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27 March 2016

What care the Dead, for Chanticleer —

What care the Dead, for Chanticleer —
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
  Dickinson begins by invoking the War. Sunrise colors are a 'Purple Ribaldry – of Morning'. The word play on 'ribbon'  (per Dickinson Lexicon) and 'morning' for 'mourning', along with the color purple, suggests the Purple Heart, a military decoration awarded to the wounded or killed in battle. The award began as the Badge of Military Merit in the Revolutionary War,  became the Medal of Honor in the Civil War, and the Purple Heart after WWI. Its color began as purple and is purple still. Sunrise pours the purple heart of mourning over the dead, vexing them. Too little, perhaps, and much too late. 
  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 …


  1. Wonderful analysis of a masterful poem!

    ED chooses her words and images so carefully. In the first stanza, the image is of the new day -- but the choice of words contrasts the passions of life with the passionless, detachment of death.

    Chanticleer is a powerful opening image. Not only a rooster, Chanticleer is a metaphor for pride. In Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, Chanticleer's pride does him in -- he has a premonition of death and then is flattered by Reynard the Fox and is caught and killed. Next, ED evokes the sun with the startling verb "vex", the emotion of aggression linked to the image of the sun. For me, in one word it calls to mind John Donne: "Busy old fool, unruly sun". And the meaning of that poem in turn evokes the emotion of lust that is echoed in the word "ribaldry" in the next line. I love the broken rhythm and enjambment in the last line of this stanza.

    The second stanza has the beautiful phrase "pour as blank" -- void contrasted with the vividness of life's emotions. "Tier of Wall" for me evokes height and verticality -- perhaps a slight sense of something beyond the Wall. Perhaps just another tier? In any case, the Wall, though new, is impenetrable and cool to life's emotions. The image it calls to mind is a mausoleum or tomb.

    In the fourth stanza, "Mortised Ear" is a wonderful phrase. Mortised literally means an opening or slot. It is an image of receptivity as an ear is receptive to sound. But mortised also has the word "mort", or death, in it. And for me, following the earlier reference to "Mason", it calls to mind the word mortar -- as if the ear were blocked with cement.

    ED doesn't stop with contrasting death with life and passion and sun and song and Summer. In the next stanza, she goes against the easy inclination of a thousand bad poets. She refuses to compare death with winter. Instead, for her, death is beyond both Summer and Winter. The stanza states this very playfully using internal rhymes: "as easy freeze -- June Noon as January Night".

    The last five lines are difficult. The freezing of death is beyond both Summer and Winter. Similarly, ED evokes the sensual image of a breeze with odors of the South -- Sycamore (Biblical fruit bearing tree of Egypt) and Cinnamon (I am sure that she chose these words as much for their sounds as their meaning) and describes an impossibility -- that these be "Deposit in a Stone". Just as the freeze of death is beyond concept of both Summer and Winter, the sensuality of life does not translate to stone. There is are two worlds here, mutually unintelligible. Even the attempt to bridge the two is beyond what we can conceive, absurd -- like setting a gravestone for warmth. So all we can do is turn back and "Give Spices -- unto Men".

    I don't find this a sad or depressing poem. It is very life affirming. Death is blank, unknown and unknowable. Life is full of moments of passion and sensuality that are ephemeral -- that we cannot grasp or take with us beyond that Tier of Wall.

  2. Glad that you returned to blogging. In spring – about quite a dark poem (and in view of the rather concrete dead men, also a political one, I guess). Ultimately not graspable for a non-native speaker? Hopefully not. Not equally perceptible, enjoyable in its verbal richness and stylistic charm? Very probably. Besides your text I also enjoyed the vivid reaction of the first commentator. In my cautious attempt to understand the understandable one main problem lies in filling up the elliptical syntax, in finding the initial resp. final words of sentences. I confine myself to one question (appealing to both of you): Could “As soon” in V/4 not rather introduce as a temporal conjunction a new, complex sentence – with “Give” opening the main clause (‘this will give’)? By the way, I read the lines V/2-3 separately: i.e. with a main stress on “as (easy)”. But this may not be that relevant. (Dieter Wirth)

    1. The poem is not entirely graspable by at least this English speaker!
      That last difficult section is difficult for several reasons. For me it is the two verbs: the South is to "Deposit" and to "Give". She is not likely to deposit her scented breeze in a stone under a stone; she is not likely to give her spices to Men. I agree entirely with the response of Anonymous to your post except for that last line – which I hold to be integral to the complex sentence it completes. But I find the relationship and distinction between the breeze and the spices is elusive. Yes, it is as impossible for the breeze to be deposited in a stone as the Dead care for winter; but it is not impossible for the South to give spices -- by way of spicy-scented breezes.

      Perhaps, it now occurs to me, Dickinson means that the dead wouldn't care if the South gave spices unto Men -- it is no longer their concern. They would just as soon the south bury her scented breeze in a grave as give away her spices. It's no difference to them.

      As to Engliosh vernacular: the phrase 'as soon" is often used to indicate preference. The Cambridge Dictionary website defines it as follows:

      If you would (just) as soon do something or would ​sooner do something, you would ​prefer to do it ​rather than something ​else that is ​possible:
      "Would you like to go out for ​dinner?" "I'd just as soon ​stay in - I'm not ​feeling very well."

    2. /Part one/
      I was wrong, I should have read this adverbial expression in five other poems (e.g, in F345, also initial). Otherwise, ED would choose “as soon as”, never omitting the second “as”. So the faint trace of brightness I deduced from my reading is lost, regretfully. No inversion of the “south wind” from the Song of Solomon: “Blow upon my garden that its spices may flow out.”

      I do not think that ED’s poetry is exclusively idiosyncratic, even solipsistic. (Cf. the preserved variants of poems and the fact of her sending poems to friends.) I am interested in exploring the options of a poetic translation by establishing a semantic basis, desirably open for not only one interpretation. In doing so, I am fully aware that the quality of a poem lies in the whole, co-created by rhythm and sound.

      I find lines of this poem difficult to ‘understand’, i.e. to link with the image of a somewhat significant situation, which are quite easy to translate. So, I had problems with interpreting the expressive quasi-question “What care the...?” (also possible with an exclamation mark, I guess) and the status of the word “summer” in IV/1. Susan’s specifying paraphrase #Why should the dead worry about...?# is rather confined to stanza V with the negative image of winter. Cf. its unsuitability for I/2: Why should the dead worry about the day?

      A kind of a silent monologue: What care the dead (bodies) for wolves, for fire? For a precious coffin or sepulcher? What care the dead(s’ soals?) for the bereaved? For the devil? For the ‘light’? What care the dead for G-d?... Why is day with the call of the [arrogant?] rooster taken as an issue? The day positive, the cockcrow rather annoying.

      You write: #Everything is cold and still, senseless#. Well, the dead cannot enjoy bright things any more and they do not worry about unpleasant things. They just do not care because they have stopped doing anything! You write: #no more warmth for the dead# (How else?) You go over to: #the sky with all its colors, the warmth of the sun# (Where in the poem?). Similarly as in my response to the blog about “A clock stopped”, I dare to say again: It cannot be that trivial. (D.W.)

  3. ED's poetry is known for its compression and ellipsis. The last few lines of this poem are particularly difficult.

    You are right -- you could read the "As soon" phrase as part of a sentence that includes the last line. I don't read it that way because of the meaning. The "As soon" phrase describes an impossibility -- the depositing of the scent of spices and summer in a stone tomb. The summer breeze is moving and spices evoke the senses and life -- just as emotions and sound and the feel of cold and warmth evoke life in the earlier stanzas. The word deposit -- like money locked in a vault -- contrasts with what is deposited -- a scented breeze. A breeze exists only with movement -- it ceases to be when it is deposited or locked in stone.

    So I read the "As soon" phrase as relating back to the question whether the dead care for winter or summer. You could as soon deposit a summer breeze in a stone as have the dead care for summer or winter.

    The last line I read as independent -- a turning back to life and a recognition that sensuality, emotions, summer, sounds and touch are given to living men.

    But, it is a difficult line. You could criticize Dickinson for being obscure -- but most of her poems were never published. So is it fair to say that she should be writing to be intelligible to a general audience? That is part of her appeal, we are looking over her shoulder and seeing her mind spark and catch fire. She isn't talking to us -- she isn't teaching us a lesson.

    1. I like all of this but am particularly liking your last paragraph.

  4. /Part two/
    Here is my sketched attempt of interpreting, so far: A new bright morning after a battle: corpses still lying somewhere, corpses here waiting to be buried. Not as much the noise of an innocent rooster, but perhaps the next roll call. An emerging erotic memory: not, as proposed in EDL, the (“your”!) sun able to cause a burn, but in the sense of Donne’s “unruly sun” [thanks to Commentator1 for this intertextual hint!]. Then: a blending of the “purple ribaldry“ with the old ribbon of the Purple Heart, awarded in accordance with official mourning [as Susan demonstrated]. No piety for the fallen, rather a kind of a frivolous scenery, made by nature and culture. The glare of the real sun remains blank to the dead bodies and to the memorial wall [Not: #Sunrise colors are now as blank to them as the surface of a new wall#!] With some intentional redundancy, for lingering. Now: without a direct reference to the outer world some internal weaving with words. The rather positive image of the summer and the sun at its hottest, unable to have an impact on the deeply metaphorical snow behind which the dead (bodies / body parts) are. In addition: probably, [as Susan outlined] evoked by the solo funereal bugle call, a transcendental imagination with a bird. Maybe, slíght irony about a volatile mankind. [The simple connection “And (knew)” irritates me. Well, ED mostly avoids explicit connections. Cf. Susan’s reading as wishful: #If only...#] Again with an intentional redundancy: 1 thought in 5 lines. After this: word weaving goes on with the negative image of the winter. The dead are winter to themselves, stiffening from inside. June, January with a vague reference to war events? Then, in my view, a point! Though, formally there is an internal rhyme bow: June-noon--as-soon. – But which way further?

    In your reading you both seem to take for granted that the meaning of the phrase “What care the dead for winter” is well understood, easily connectable with some idea. I am unable to. Except for childish thoughts like: the dead do not come out when it is winter.

    You claim that here two situations are compared as equally #unlikely / impossible / absurd#. As for the first situation, let us take your non-expressive paraphrase “The dead do not care about winter”. [I ignore that Comm.1 includes the line III/1.]

    I try to explicate the howsoever surreal second situation, leaving aside the last line of the poem: The (air) movement from the south quasi-geologically deposits the scent particles of S. resp. C., contained in “her” breeze, in a stone (tomb) (a burial cave?) and someone puts a stone to it (before it) to secure the warm temperature of the deposit (its effectiveness). As for “in a stone”, I now would share Susan’s view; cf. “in the stone” in F147. (Not: in the dent of a single stone.)

    Susan writes: #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.# Comm.1 adds: #You could as soon deposit a summer[?] breeze in a stone as have the dead care for summer or winter.# [I disregard the reference expansion to line III/1: then why not expand it to the lines I/1-2?]

    You both seem to ignore that the lines 2 and 3 already play an emphasizing role. There is no need to emphasize once more, destroying the parallelism with the third stanza. After “As soon” all information is new and quite detailed (cf. “or Cinnamon”). Such a type of sentence is not very suitable for an additional emphasizing role, I think.

    You might say that my thoughts are too bound by logic, that I look for a coherence, which is not intended to be there. But, certainly, I do not want ED’s poetry to be of another kind, “more intelligible”. – Well, the poem will not be a favourite one of mine, but, as you see, I got very engaged. (Dieter Wirth)

  5. I really liked the alliteration of sycamore and cinnamon here!

  6. Anonymous writes above, "You could criticize Dickinson for being obscure -- but most of her poems were never published. So is it fair to say that she should be writing to be intelligible to a general audience? That is part of her appeal, we are looking over her shoulder and seeing her mind spark and catch fire. She isn't talking to us -- she isn't teaching us a lesson."

    What is amazing to me is exactly the opposite, that somehow, through very unconventional means (i.e. not through publishing in her lifetime) ED IS talking to the general reader, or at least to specific readers, and leaves us JUST enough clues in her poetry to keep us on the trail to get somewhere. They are EXTREMELY careful in their ambiguities and syntactical wiles, even if we sometimes read things into them that aren't there at all. The obscurity is part of telling the truth slant, and functions, in a riddle like, way, to draw us in, and also to get at truths that are themselves difficult. Deriving lessons from poems isn't fashionable these days, but for me there is a lesson in nearly every poem. I find compact and cogent Truth and Beauty again and again and can hardly believe the consistency and pace in which she keeps it up. In this one it is a lesson we hear often, not just from ED, but from poets as old as time, the reminder to "gather ye rosebuds (purple ribaldry) while ye may". I never tire of hearing this lesson, just like I never minded people saying to me "Enjoy your babies, it goes so fast" when I had kids. It's a reminder that bears repeating over and over again. The gravity of this one is drummed into your head, stanza after stanza, so that the cinnamon and sycamore becomes particularly redolent by the time you get to the end.

    As to that spice being put into the stone, and the warm stone above it, I'm guessing this is supposed to be the fragrances put with the dead in graves. Cinnamon is a common one in Egyptian embalming, and though sycamore is not, cedar is. I'm especially thinking here of the spices they anointed Jesus with.

    “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body” Mark 16:1

    So I think the final line is saying don't waste spices on "it", on the dead, give it to men, i.e. the living. In this way it is similar to the poem about the dying making much ado about the fashion of the way they will die in F602, "The manner of its death".

    On another note, my head spins with Dieter Wirth's translation travails. As Susan says above, translating these poems for an English speaker is difficult enough!

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  8. Comments by Anonymous (April 1, 2016) are not an April Fool’s joke. “They” (?) enrich(es?) Susan K’s explication with a piece of prose worthy of wonderment. And SK’s explication ranks right up there with it. Thank you “They” and Susan K.

    Nor are comments by Anonymous (May 1, 2016) a May Day jig in the park. Reading these always insightful/sometimes inscrutable/never imitable comments is like sitting in a seminar presented by crème-de-la-crème ED-treckers gathered around a table well supplied with fine wine. It’s humbling to enjoy these gifts, which Susan K makes possible with her hard won ‘TPB’.

    Thank you all!

  9. With this poem, ‘What care I for the dead’ (F624), ED hints at an answer to my implied question of the previous poem, “I wonder whether ED ever reached that entirely reasonable, relieving, and simply stated belief: there is no there there.” The answer leans yes, at least for this poem, F624.