Emily Dickinson, “We do not play on Graves” (467)

“We do not play on Graves” (467)
Emily Dickinson

We do not play on Graves —
Because there isn’t Room —
Besides — it isn’t even — it slants
And People come —

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We’re fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —

Comment:

“We do not play on Graves:” well, that’s reassuring. “Because there isn’t Room:” wait, it sounds like you did play on graves at least once, or have far too thoroughly considered doing so. “Besides — it isn’t even — it slants /
And People come:” I’ll take this as an admission of guilt, thank you very much.

This first stanza is most questionable. Why does anyone want to play on graves? They are narrow and uneven. Moving upon them invites the earth to move, pushing us in.

The childlike narration of this scene continues in the second stanza:

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We’re fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

If you play on a grave, people may come to pay their respects. They probably will find your actions distasteful. Dickinson’s narrator identifies a movement from external, conventional signs of grief to shock and heartbreak. A flower is placed, a face falls, and then when a heart breaks, there lingers no possibility of “pretty play.”

In one way, though, we always play on graves. “The earth belongs to the living” in the most literal, savage way of standing upon the dead. But the dead are not merely defined by death. They lived and are remembered by us. Memory of them defines our lives. How that consciousness turns into respect, though, is an open question.

The poem makes it easy to see the conventional respect of a miffed visitor to a grave. However, can we really deem the childish innocence which doesn’t want to break a heart as leaving the dead to their own devices?

I suspect Dickinson is wondering about a certain absorption with the dead. One that would never let a flower grow naturally if it failed to acknowledge the horror and finality of death, the necessity of grief. A joy that could attend the living, by contrast, has this to say:

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —

Grief and its attendant conventions can be a trap, making us enemies of our own happiness, turning the dead into a perpetual imposition while turning life – including the lives they lived – into an occasion. Often I’ll feel guilty toward those I’ve lost, thinking I didn’t visit or call or support enough in this life. It’s a guilt that dissipates as soon as I resolve to learn more and pay it forward. Gifts can only be given or received with joy, with no sense of obligation attached.