Some, too fragile for winter winds

O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory, 1892, Jan Toorop
Background Image, O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory, 1892, Jan Toorop

Emily wanted this poem to follow “An altered look about the hills” which dealt with rebirth and the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, yet this poem seems nearly devoid of God and Jesus and here there is no rebirth awaiting us, only the comforts of the grave. Perhaps the only faith she had was in nature?

I’m reminded of the poem she wrote about the little schoolgirl who died, “Taken from men – this morning“. In that poem she describes how far away that little girl is now, a “quaint” courtier in a “kingdom” which we can see as only a “dim” “border star” and the poem seems to be dealing with the grief Emily feels at never being able to see her again. In this poem, I image Emily is visiting the grave of that child and she is contemplating exactly what that “kingdom” really is: is it heaven, or is it only the “thoughtful grave”?

Matthew 10:29-31 says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows”. Emily uses this image of the little sparrow and relates it to the child who was “too fragile for winter winds” but unlike Matthew, she seems to be saying that this creature has gone “unnoticed by the Father” and that Jesus has not been a shepherd to take her into his “fold”. In other words, she is writing from that place of grief where a person wonders if there even is a God and, if there is, has God forgotten their loved one. I wonder if Emily is having a crisis of faith in her grief, is she angry with God, or is she describing her unique philosophy of nature being the one true kingdom from which we come and which we shall return to?

The first stanza contains the remarkable line “The thoughtful grave” which can be read a couple of ways. At first read it seems as if she is saying that it is the grave which cares for us the way a mother cares for a child when she tucks them into a crib. The grave holds the body for all eternity and keeps it safe “from frost”. Yet another way to think of this line is that it is we who are the thoughtful in that as we stand at the grave we must consider the “treasures in her nest” and we must contemplate what will happen when we die.

The second stanza’s use of gender is worth noting because Emily describes the grave as a “she” (who does the tucking in), yet describes the “schoolboy” and the “sportsman” as not “bold” enough go into the grave and “expose” death. It’s unusual that she equates death and the grave with a woman, but it’s a wonderful contrast to the adventurous men who are not so brave as to uncover death’s mysteries. Even the bravest among us are not brave enough to “look” where death is.

The final stanza’s use of the word “covert” is another wonderful example of Emily using one word to do multiple things. “Covert” at first glance implies a secret, as in the secret of the grave, and it also means a shelter, as where a sportsman might go to flush out animals who are hiding, but the 5th OED definition of “covert” means the “feathers that cover the bases of the larger feathers on some particular part of the body”. These hidden feathers which can’t be easily seen (hidden / “covert”) is related to the “thoughtful grave” which protects from the “cold” the way a mother does when she is “tenderly tucking” in her child. These feathers also relates back to the sparrow which she is using as the central metaphor, but also in how she equates spirituality with nature and not necessarily a Christian God.

As I read through each of Emily’s poems everyday I learn something new about her, and this poem took me by surprise when I read the line “Sparrows, unnoticed by the Father” because it felt to me as if she was saying that God does not notice everyone and that all that is waiting for us is the “treasures” of the grave. And this stood out for me because it’s such a human poem, a poem filled with doubt and mystery, but also the desire to be comforted and a philosophy about life and death that is not morbid, but quite beautiful in that we are all part of a natural world, and death is a part of that world and though death is scary to think about (as we stand at someone else’s grave being”thoughtful”), there is a treasure there, not just in the fact that whom is buried there is a treasure to us, but that death is a treasure just as life is, it’s just that it’s a mystery that nobody alive is “bold” enough to truly investigate, to truly spend the time being “thoughtful” about because it is a terrifying prospect and one we will all face when death is ready for us too.