Emily Dickinson’s ‘What care the Dead’

July 24, 2020 4 Comments

When I’m distracted or glum I often reach for the poems of Emily Dickinson. I’ve an old copy of Thomas H. Johnson’s complete edition, published in this country by Faber.  It’s less of a book and more of a box.  With its stocky build and 770 pages it looks like a box of postcards.  You can open its cover and fish out, at random, any short poem you like.  In a few minutes – most poems take up less than a page – you’ll find that your mind has been slightly altered.

When I did this the other night, out popped ‘What care the Dead, for Chanticleer’. 

This isn’t Dickinson’s most famous poem, even among her numerous poems about death, but, as always, it gives you plenty to chew on.

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 —

The poem’s theme seems obvious enough, one with a long poetic pedigree: the irretrievable deadness of the dead.  But it isn’t long before puzzling things start to happen.  Unlike the rest of us, the dead can’t be woken as normal by the cock’s crowing.  The word isn’t ‘cockerel’ here, though, but the old term ‘chanticleer’.  In medieval European legend Chanticleer the proud cock is a survivor of death: he escapes a violent end at the hands of Reynard the Fox, to live another day.  ‘Vex’ is an unexpected verb for the newly risen Sun.  Does it echo John Donne’s Busy old fool, unruly Sun, the unwelcome and vexatious interrupter of the previous night’s erotic bliss?  That might help to explain why morning could be associated not just with renewed light, but with ‘Ribaldry’, a word originally meaning sexually licentious, and even in its weaker sense, sexually coarse.  The adjective ‘purple’ may not bring to mind, as often, ‘high-born’ or ‘royal’, but red-blooded.  Is there a suggestion that the dead aren’t just missing the daily revival of light (merely being alive), but also the bodily pleasures of the living (enjoying being alive)?

The first three lines of the first stanza set down a regular iambic ‘dead beat’ to echo the funereal pace of the dead.  But the last line deliberately breaks the rhythm and tips you straight into the first line of the second stanza.  As so often, Dickinson uses a simple, almost child-like metric, only to undermine it at every turn.  There’s only one true rhyme (two, if you include the doubled ‘be’ in stanza 4), and even the assonance is weak.  This ‘tripping up’ technique seems designed to stop any quick reading of the poem, and encourage contemplation.

If the metre doesn’t make you pause, the diction will.  ‘Pour as blank’ in Stanza 2 is a daring phrase.  We’re talking about light again here – the subject of ‘pour’ must be ‘sunrise’ and ‘morning’ – falling on the dead as if on a wall.  The wall might suggest the wall of a tomb, with the addition of ‘tier’ reinforcing its impenetrability.  It’s the faces of the dead that are ‘blank’, but here the light itself seems blank, like some kind of colourless paint thrown on to a newly built wall.  The dead cannot see.  Nor can they feel – the light falls ‘cool’ – or hear.  It would be a miraculous bird that could penetrate their ears, ‘mortised’ or jointed shut as if by a carpenter.  Mortise as a verb has another, legal meaning, to alienate in mortmain (literally, ‘dead hand’): both words carry within them more than a hint of death (mort).  Time, too, and the succession of the seasons, mean nothing to the dead, frozen in summer and winter alike.  Even the sun at its most powerful, at midday on the summer solstice, can’t budge the snow that imprisons them.

The last stanza returns us to the sensual world of the poem’s start.  It’s impossible to imagine (‘as soon’) the summer breeze placing the rich aromas of sycamore and cinnamon carried from the south, and locking them down in a stone for the benefit of the dead.  Such sensual delights (‘spices’) are given only to (and receivable by) ‘men’, that is, the living.  The last line should really be preceded by a large full stop, to distinguish it from the earlier lines, except that Dickinson was famously averse to all punctuation except the dash.  ‘Spice’, standing for exotic sensory experience, echoes Donne’s poem (‘th’ Indias of spice and mine’).

What’s missing from Dickinson’s poem is almost as interesting as its content.  You might expect a poet so used to speaking with God to offer the dead some hope.  And indeed, in another poem on exactly the same subject, Safe in their alabaster chambers, the ‘meek members of the Resurrection’ await their translation to heaven, while the lives of the living, we’re reminded, are transient and unimportant (‘Diadems – drop – and Doges – surrender / Soundless as dots – on a Disc of snow –’).  Our poem takes exactly the opposite line.  There’s no mention of an everlasting life to come with God.  The dead are definitively dead – as dead as they are in that most fundamentalist poem about finality, Philip Larkin’s Aubade.

You’d hardly expect Emily Dickinson, the New England puritan, to turn in reaction to that other traditional poetic response to the finality of death, ‘carpe diem’, like Omar Khayyam, or Robert Herrick.  But in her oblique and quiet way, she suggests quite clearly, in the first and last stanzas, that we, the living, should take full advantage of this sensory (and sensual) world while we still can. Here at she could hardly disagree with Andrew Marvell’s lines, ‘The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace’.

To prove that our poem is no anomaly in Emily Dickinson’s work, there’s another poem that riffs on the same theme.  ‘As far from pity, as complaint’ also rehearses the disadvantages of the dead, ending with a brilliantly vivid image of the joy of life:

As far from pity, as complaint —
As cool to speech — as stone —
As numb to Revelation
As if my Trade were Bone —

As far from time — as History —
As near yourself — Today —
As Children, to the Rainbow’s scarf —
Or Sunset’s Yellow play

To eyelids in the Sepulchre —
How dumb the Dancer lies —
While Color’s Revelations break —
And blaze — the Butterflies!

‘Revelation’ here isn’t a reference to that grim, underworld book of the New Testament.  It’s simply the liberation of our eyes to the beauties of the real world.

Comments (4)

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  1. David Jones says:

    I have the same collection. In my U3A poetry group where we each bring along a poem on a theme or by an author, my reliance on Emily Dickinson is well known. I first came across her in a preface to a book “Landfalls” by Naomi J. Williams.

    “Exultation is the going
    Of an inland soul to sea…”

    It’s one of her “easier” poems- some I find rather complex.

    She was an extraordinary woman.

    As I recall Harvard’s Houghton Library has a Dickinson room containing her furniture.

    This seems typically American. In the University of Minnesota the Special Collections department has a large Sherlock Holmes collection, with a recreation of his Baker Street study. Quite extraordinary.

  2. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this. Really enjoyed learning more about this poem.

  3. Kat says:

    I’d take the ‘purple’ and ‘ribaldry’ even further and suggest engorged genitals (either male or female, or both), at the height of passion, particularly since we are reading about the rising of the morning sun in all its…

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