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03 November 2019

Endow the Living — with the Tears —

Endow the Living — with the Tears —
You squander on the Dead,
And They were Men and Women — now,
Around Your Fireside —

Instead of Passive Creatures,
Denied the Cherishing
Till They — the Cherishing deny —
With Death's Ethereal Scorn —
                                                            Fr657 (1863)  J521

There's a sad yet understandable irony in how we often shower the dead with more concentrated attention and affection than we showed while they were alive. In this short poem, Dickinson tersely instructs us  to instead 'Endow the Living'.

That's a reversal, as normally endowment flows from the dead to the living. But Dickinson neatly leaves the dead completely out of it. Instead, the living should cherish the living and 'squander' no sentiment on the Dead who are nothing but 'Passive Creatures, neither wanting nor needing attention.

Yet despite their passivity, the dead retain some pride. They react to the post-mortem Cherishing with 'Ethereal Scorn'. It's phony. It's too-little-too-late. It is irrelevant.

While I don't think there are dazzling insights in this poem, I find the format of  its sensible meaning rather droll. The entire poem is written as a single sentence. The first word, 'Endow', lends a certain legalist cast. The chiasmic reversals of "Denied the Cherishing / Till They – the Cherishing deny –" are clever and build on the theme of logic rather than sentiment.
            I'm not sure, nonetheless, how to respond to the poem in general. It has an overall polished feel to it – a mood at odds with the extended deep grieving Queen Victoria had been practicing since Prince Albert died two years before Dickinson wrote this poem. It is also at odds with the national mood as tens of thousands of soldiers were dying in Civil War battles. 
            The poem's central assumption is that the dead were not cherished in their lifetimes. But is that what Dickinson is really getting at? Perhaps she was thinking more broadly and the endowing and the cherishing aren't so tightly linked. A queen, for example, might devote herself to her people rather than her dead prince. Governments might forgo ritualized grieving for the dead, choosing instead to serve the living.

I don't really believe the poem can be read this way, however. I think it more likely that Dickinson sharpened her poetic wit in response to particular funerals and grievings in her very own Amherst.


  1. This poem grows on me. Your essay helps. I like it more and more as I read it again and again.

    The first two lines are wonderful. Endow and squander are strong words -- evoking money as a metaphor to say "invest in the living" and renounce the profligacy of grief. To make tears transactional -- like coins -- is shocking.

    The next three lines play with past and present tense. Does "They" refer to the living or the dead? The past tense -- "were" -- makes it seem as if "they" are the dead. But, the word "now" and the setting at the fireside "instead of passive creatures" makes "they" appear to be living men and women. It is really a projection back to the past. The effect is like a flashback -- the dead brought to life.

    Then, these living / dead are brought from the past where they were "Denied the Cherishing" to the present -- where "They -- the cherishing deny" with "Ethereal Scorn". This last phrase is so powerful -- so Dickinsonian. It invokes so much -- the immateriality and atmospheric quality of death coupled with the word "scorn" gives the dead an imperious, almost regal quality. The dead look to the transactions of grief from the first two lines as inconsequential -- beyond notice.

    1. Thank you for this. I think your commentary gets more to the heart of the poem than mine. I had meant to mention, but forgot, that I read a substitution of 'And' for 'As if' in the third line-- which I concluded on the reasoning you offer. The living squander their tears when weepily picturing the dead as still alive and sitting in their accustomed chairs around the hearth. That sounds harsh to our modern ears -- and would have been much harsher in 1863 what with all the Civil War casualties, Victorian grief rituals, etc.

      I was struck by 'Ethereal Scorn', too. I couldn't think of another way to say it -- it is vivid and meaningful and untranslatable... as you say, "so Dickinsonian"!