‘Died..’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning was originally published in the collection Last Poems in 1862 after Browning’s death. It is a complex eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of five line, or quintains. Browning structured this piece with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows a pattern of abbaa, alternating as she saw fit from stanza to stanza. In regards to the meter, it sticks to iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. These structured lines contribute to solemn and at points humorous mood of the text.
Additionally, the lines of this piece are generally quite short, but they contain a great deal of information. This fact, taken in tandem with Browning’s scornful, yet amused tone makes for interesting reading. The speaker, who many assume to be Browning herself, spends most of the piece lecturing, from a first-person perspective, her husband. She expresses disappointment in him and the general public for engaging in gossip.
Her arguments against it are so sound it is easy to forget that at the beginning of the piece she too was drawing conclusions about the dead man’s life. It seems that the shock of the death momentarily stopped the conversation on the husband’s side, but had a more permanent effect on Browning herself.
There is a great deal of imagery in ‘Died..’ and much of it is crafted through simile and metaphor. One of the first most effective examples a reader will come across is in the fourth stanza. It begins with the word “As” signaling that a simile will follow. Here the speaker is coming two different types of gossiping and the way the sudden death of the subject brings the talk to a quick end. This is a strange and complicated comparison, made all the more so by the compact space in which it is presented.
Summary of Died..
The poem begins with the speaker stating that “we” can stop talking now. The man she and her husband were discussing has turned up dead and now the speaker’s praise, and the husband’s “blame” is wasted. It is not only the couple who were discussing the man, the members of the general public outside were as well. Everyone seems to have an opinion on who this person is, and then suddenly, who they were.
The death comes as a surprise to everyone. It shocks them all into silence and inspires the speaker to lecture her audience on the problems associated with judging others. First, she makes the point that anything one says against a dead person is wasted. They are in the ground, surrounded by dust and flies, they have no use for criticism. She goes on to remind the reader, and the intended listener, that everyone is mortal. It seems to her that gossip is simply a way to stave off the fear of death. She is very adamant about the fact that everyone is going to end up as a “was” in awe of God’s “am.”
The poem concludes with the speaker asking her listeners to try to be better people. She hopes that everyone will stop talking about one another, and especially about the dead, and get on with life. Time, she states, is better spent helping others than tearing people down through idle words.
Analysis of Died..
What shall we add now? He is dead.
And I who praise and you who blame,
With wash of words across his name,
Find suddenly declared instead–
“On Sunday, third of August, dead.’
In the first stanza of ‘Died..’ the speaker, who is generally considered to be Browning herself, begins by addressing her listener, likely her husband, Robert Browning. She is speaking on the death of an individual known to both of them and begins by stating that there is nothing else that “we” can “add now.” The two have expressed their opinions. Browning had a positive view of this person and her husband a negative. They’ve spent a lot of time discussing this person and have come to no conclusion they can agree on. The argument is brought to a halt by the realization that on the “third of August” this person died.
Which stops the whole we talked to-day.
I quickened to a plausive glance
At his large general tolerance
By common people’s narrow way,
Stopped short in praising. Dead, they say.
In the next stanza, the speaker describes how after his death she still thought of him positively. Immediately her mind goes to the good she knew about this person. It is “quickened to a plausive,” or approving, “glance” in the direction of his memory.
This was in contrast to the majority opinion. Many others, the group she refers to as the “common people,” do not see him in this same light. They “Stopped short” in their praise of him. At this point, the reader does not know why this is the case or why it seems that Browning is the only one to hold this person in any kind of regard. The public, and her husband, disliked this man without exception.
And you, who had just put in a sort
Of cold deduction–“rather, large
Through weakness of the continent marge,
Than greatness of the thing contained’–
Broke off. Dead!–there, you stood restrained.
The third stanza is again directly addressed to her husband. She recaps for him, and for the reader, the “cold” and unfeeling points he had just be arguing. He had told her that this person was only seen as special because of his surroundings. In another location, amongst another group or in another set of circumstances, the good that Browning saw in him would not exist.
The speaker describes how this argument was happening at the exact moment the couple found out the subject had died. Upon hearing the news her husband broke off his speech and “restrained” himself from further abusing this person’s reputation.
As if we had talked in following one
Up some long gallery. “Would you choose
An air like that? The gait is loose–
Or noble.’ Sudden in the sun
An oubliette winks. Where is he? Gone.
In the next lines, the speaker presents the reader with a simile. She expresses their argument through comparison with a discussion held in a long hall. The speaker imagines herself and her husband talking about “one,” some unknown person. They are following him up a “long gallery,” or a narrow room. While walking they talk about his “gait” or the way he walks. They’re making fun of him for how he moves.
Their discussion of this person is cut short by the opening of an ”oubliette.” This is a dungeon or cave-like opening below the ground. The only entryway into one of these spots is through the floor/ceiling. The walker is now condemned to this place, which in the comparison represents death. Just like the main subject of this poem died suddenly.
Dead. Man’s “I was’ by God’s “I am’–
All hero-worship comes to that.
High heart, high thought, high fame, as flat
As a gravestone. Bring your Jacet jam–
The epitaph’s an epigram.
In these lines, the speaker refers to God, as well as to man’s own perception himself. The man is dead, his existence is a “was.” It pales in comparison to God’s everlasting “am.” She describes how all of life comes down to living and then suddenly— not. No matter who you are, you end up in the same category as this man who has just died.
The next lines emphasize this same assertion. One might be considered to have, or feel as if they do have, “High heart, high thoughts, high fame” but all of that becomes “flat / As a gravestone.” This dark simile is somewhat amusing, especially taken in tandem with the next line’s reference to an epigram. The speaker is comparing an epitaph, written after someone’s death, to an epigram, or a short usually witty phrase summarizing someone.
Dead. There’s an answer to arrest
All carping. Dust’s his natural place?
He’ll let the flies buzz round his face
And, though you slander, not protest?
–From such an one, exact the Best?
Death is the answer to the argument husband and wife were engaged in. It “arrest[ed]“ all of their “carping” or complaining. The speaker asks her husband a number of rhetorical questions in the next lines. They make the point that any judgments the two, or anyone else in the public, make about the man are worthless at this point.
She states that the dead man is not bothered by the flies that “buzz round his face,” then asks, why should he care about the “slander” spoken against him? The mocking tone the speaker takes in these lines is continued to push back against her husband. One might assume that he was eager to continue their argument, his gossip, and trying to win her over with his arguments. These lines are certainly meant to bring those intentions to an end.
Opinions gold or brass are null.
We chuck our flattery or abuse,
Called Caesar’s due, as Charon’s dues,
I’ the teeth of some dead sage or fool,
To mend the grinning of a skull.
In the second to last stanza, the speaker states that the opinions that ”we” give might be “gold or brass.” Either way, they don’t matter. The next lines continue to pass judgment on any who would speak poorly or positively about another. The opinions are stated forcefully, but in reality, they don’t matter at all. This relates back to the previous lines that discuss how everyone ends up in the grave.
She continues on to mention “Caesar’s due” and “Charon’s dues.” The first phrase is a reference to a passage in the Bible related to the paying of taxes to the Romans. The second refers to the coins paid to Charon, the ferryman in Greek mythology. Without the payment, one could not be taken into the afterlife.
The last lines speak on how any judgment made by the living on the dead is only done in an effort to stave off that same fate. They are attempts to “mend the grinning of a skull.” The fear of death is lessened when one is able to make light of those who have entered into it.
Be abstinent in praise and blame.
The man’s still mortal, who stands first,
And mortal only, if last and worst.
Then slowly lift so frail a fame,
Or softly drop so poor a shame
The last stanza of ‘Died..’ gives Browning’s husband, and the reader, some well thought out advice. She asks that everyone hold back their “praise and blame.” One should not engage in the temptation as every single person is “still mortal.” Those who are “last and worst” and those who might be seen as standing “first” are the same.
Rather than wasting one’s time on these judgments, the reader, and Browning’s husband, should take care to watch out for one another. The effort is better placed in lifting “so frail a fame” of one who needs boosting. One should not inflict greater damage to someone who is already dealing with shame.