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It is not dying hurts us so –
‘Tis living hurts us more.
But dying is a different way,
A kind, behind the door –
The Southern custom of the bird
That soon as frosts are due –
Adopts a better latitude.
We are the birds that stay
The shiverers round farmers’ doors.
For whose reluctant crumb –
We stipulate – till pitying snows
Persuade our feathers Home.
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally, the poem was incorporated into a letter, now lost, to Louise and Frances Norcross on the occasion of the death of their father, Loring Norcross, on 17 January 1863. The text survives in Frances’s transcript (y-mssa mlt69-19, 432). First published in Letters (1894), 251, from ([A]); and Bolts of Melody (1945), 201, from a transcript of B (a tr440).
When her beloved cousins’ father died in January 1863, Dickinson included this poem in a letter to them prefaced by words of comfort and memories of her uncle and his gentleness, as well as this attitude about death and her reaction to it:
Wasn’t dear papa so tired always after mamma went, and wasn’t it almost sweet to think of the two together these new winter nights? The grief is our side, darlings, and the glad is theirs. … Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray.” (L278)
Dickinson repeats this idea, that death hurts the living more, in other poems. The reference to the “Southern custom of the bird,” an allusion to migratory patterns, which are also a frequent metaphor for death, connects this poem to the “rebellion” on the part of the Southern states. Especially when Dickinson links herself and her cousins to the birds that do not migrate but remain, presumably, in the North.
“Shiverers” stands out as a choice of diction that is almost onomatopoeic. “Stipulate” jumps out as a word out of place in this natural scene, which is, of course, a metaphor for the larger issue of the pain death brings to the living. According to Dickinson’s Webster’s, the word contains a military resonance and even elaborates a reference to slavery:
to make an agreement or covenant with any person or company to do or forbear any thing; to contract; to settle terms; as, certain princes stipulated to assist each other in resisting the armies of France. Great Britain and the United States stipulate to oppose and restrain the African slave trade.
- Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958, 420-21.
- Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
- Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 632