The Dead

How great unto the living seem the dead!

How sacred, solemn; how heroic grown;

How vast and vague, as they obscurely tread

The shadowy confines of the dim unknown! —

For they have met the monster that we dread,

Have learned the secret not to mortal shown.

E’en as gigantic shadows on the wall

The spirit of the daunted child amaze,

So on us thoughts of the departed fall,

And with phantasma fill our gloomy gaze.

Awe and deep wonder lend the living lines,

And hope and ecstasy the borrowed beams;

While fitful fancy the full form divines,

And all is what imagination dreams.

Dive in: 
  1. This poem is a sonnet, but it doesn’t use a typical sonnet rhyming pattern. Which lines rhyme with one another? What words are repeated? Using these techniques, you can see that the poet has created two distinct sections within the poem. What is the main message in each section?
  2. The central comparison of the poem takes up the last eight lines – like “gigantic shadows on the wall” that amaze children, the dead are only sensed by us in glimpses, in “phantasma.” What words does Heavysege use to describe the phantasma in the poem? Does that give you a sense of how he feels about them? How do you sense your ancestors in our living world? How do those glimpses make you feel?
  3. For those who have studied philosophy, there’s a comparison to be made here with Plato’s allegory of the cave. How are the shadows in this poem similar to or different from the shadows of Plato? For Plato the way to see “the full picture” is rational thought and logic. Is there any way to see “the full picture” in this poem?
  4. This poem has a lot of alliteration, like the repetition of fs in “fitful fancy the full form divines.” All those rich sounds make it difficult to recite the poem with much speed. As an exercise, see how fast you can read it. Have a contest or a race! Which are the particular lines that give you trouble? Now, when you recite the poem at a regular pace, put some extra emphasis to those lines. Do they have a particular power?
  5. Think of someone you know who has died. It could be a family member or a famous person. What traces of that person do you see in your life? It could be clips from an old movie, or a piece of jewelry they left behind. Write a poem that focuses on the object that evokes the memory, not on the person being remembered. Think about how describing an object may indirectly evoke the person: the same necklace could be described as delicate and careful or as bright and brash. Let your description of the object do the work.

Useful Links

  1. Information about Charles Heavysege from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:  http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/heavysege_charles_10E.html
  2. A look at how certain festivals and holidays enable us to honour our ancestors: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/festivals-dead-around-world-180953160/
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