The poem opens with the moment following the man’s death, just as his body is being arranged, “Lay him gently to his rest,/Fold his pale hands on his breast” (1-2). Talley continues to spin the qualities typically attributed to a blazon poem to take the reader through the physical changes death has wrought upon the man. Blazon poetry depicts the body of the speaker’s lover, and was a common type of poem in the seventeenth century. “From his brow/Oh how cold and marble fair!/Softly part the tangled hair,/Look upon him now!” she writes, which paints a morbid picture of the deceased man and his disheveled appearance (3-5). The man’s relation to the narrator is unknown, he may have been the speaker’s lover, brother, father, or friend. Talley does not utilize the sexual observations most common to a blazon, but instead glazes over his being in a more platonic way. The narrator takes the reader through key parts of his body, his “cold and marble fair” brow, the “tangled hair,” “quiet and dreamlef eyes,” and “the lashes [that] darkly sweep” over his eyes (4,5,8,9). By describing the attributes of the man, the narrator creates an image of a person who is much more peaceful, if not happier, in death than he was in life. The speaker is urgently requesting, one could say demanding, that the readers, or the audience around the man’s bedside, let him continue to exist in this manner.
One way Talley has created an urgent narrator is through her use of rhythm, which after an initial reading will appear illogical but is intended to read that way. The first stanza of the poem is written in trochaic tetrameter, a line containing four feet of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, with an occasional interlude that breaks the pattern. This creates a stilted narrative that initially lures the reader into a sense of rhythm before snapping him out of it, “Lay him gently to his rest,/Fold his pale hands on his breast,/From his brow” (1-3). These interludes, which are utilized throughout the rest of the poem, establish an aggressive, urgent tone towards death. The narrator is concerned about letting the man continue to rest, and not disturbing him in any way possible–“Peaceful be his rest, and dream/Let him sleep!”– because he has finally been released from the life that brought him so much pain (13-14). The narrator repeats her request in the second stanza–“Let him rest!”–to drive home a sense of urgency (28). This break from pattern, and the switch that is seen in the next stanza, also reflects the speaker’s despair when faced with death. Unlike other women’s poetry of the time, the narrator is more concerned about the dead man not returning to earth than she is with where he is going.
Talley presents a narrator who does not talk of Heaven or God while describing death. Instead, the narrator takes joy from the fact that the man is simply in a better place because he is not on this earth without mentioning anything religious, like when she describes “on his face the deep repose,/We never saw in life” (11-12). The second stanza reiterates the idea of not finding comfort in another individual’s death. The poem is written in iambic tetrameter, a line containing four feet of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, which causes the reader to feel a physical shift in their reading. This is where the narrator’s perception of death becomes apparent. The speaker claims that there should be “No tears for him, he needs them not,” because “Along life’s drear and toilsome road/Firmly his manly footsteps trode,/Striving to bear his weary lot,/With such pain within his heart” (15-19). He no longer has to maintain “The firmness of the manly will/Veiling the secret smart,” because his “strife is o’er” (20-21, 22). Not once in this stanza does the narrator mention an afterlife as a source of comfort. In fact, one of the reasons the deceased man can be at peace is because he is “Unheeding now the bitter words,/The cold unpitying eyes,” of the people he once knew while he was alive (25-26). Talley’s decision to choose sharp, foreboding words creates a disdainful tone for the living and life. Select words like “bitter,” “cold,” “unpitying,” and “suffering” create an image of a world that is not enjoyable (24, 25, 34). The narrator does not suggest that only the last few years were a struggle, but that it was the majority of his adulthood and his “manly will” that were unenjoyable (20). Rest has been earned for this unnamed man.
In the third and final stanza, which follows the rhythm of the second stanza, the narrator finally mentions religion. The man’s “heavy cross [is] at last laid down/The crown of glory won,” although it is still more of a relief for the deceased instead of a comfort for the living (36-37). Joy is only to be had because “the task,” or life, “is done” (35). Religion comes to the narrator almost as an afterthought, as a mantra full of empty reassurances that are meant to stop one from fearing death instead of comforting someone who has lost another person. The end rhyme throughout the stanza–and the ones before it–create a sense of finality, causing the reader to pause briefly at the end of lines although the sentence is not yet complete. This, too, implies that there is a finality in death that cannot be found in other aspects of life. Talley’s narrator produces a sense of uncertainty and incompleteness, though, when she ends the poem with “His spirit to his God” (41). Rather than saying “God” as a generally accepted deity that all could find comfort in, the narrator implies that the man is going to whatever he believes in. With a single word, the narrator breaks off from the accepted views of the time period. A sense of distance is generated between the speaker and the subject of the poem, because it appears that the speaker is only saying what is expected when faced with loss.
Talley’s narrator does not find comfort in this man’s death in the same way as other “dead children” poems of the nineteenth century are known for doing. In a sense, Susan Archer Talley has written a poem that does not have a consistent rhyme or reason in order to reflect the confusion of losing someone. The ending of the poem, which is not as straightforward as a grieving individual would hope for, continues to reflect the harsh bite of death. Instead of affirming a singular belief in an afterlife, Talley’s narrator suggests that each individual will find his or her own salvation in accordance with his or her own beliefs. The only thing that is a guarantee, as the narrator mentions many times throughout the poem, is that life brings certain suffering. And only once one lies “as a weary child” in death will one’s soul be freed from “earthly strife” (7, 10). This view is not necessarily bad, however, because one will no longer be suffering on earth. Rest will, finally, be found.
- Jackson, Virginia. “The poet as Poetess.” The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by Kerry Larson, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 54-75.
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