Original poem reprinted online here: "The Wise" by Countee Cullen
Originally read: March 2, 2013
More information about the Poet: Countee Cullen
Personification of the dead as feeling emoting being from another plane of existence. Well, perhaps. The form here interests me. Tercets with a rhyme scheme of (a-a-a, b-b-b, c-c-c, d-d-d). Also each stanza is an end-stopped line. I think the poem forces the reader to begin and stop making the didactic nature of the poem amplified. "You will learn from the wise (who happen to be dead) -- and this is what the living should do"
Also the trinity symbolism is quite -- heavy (also including anaphora of "Dead Men" which repeats three times). So there are "some" spiritual undertones with this poem.
Note though the progression the poem goes on explaining why the dead are wise:
1) "How far the roots of flowers go, / How long a seed must rot to grow" The theme juxtaposition in the the third line "rot to grow" redirects the focus on what the seed must do in order to grow -- die? Not necessarily. "Rot" in the sense that shed away the dead parts to live. Also note that these images refer to the "Earthly plane" and what to look out for -- "roots" when to "rot" to "grow.
2) "[...]alone bear frost and rain / On throbless heart and heatless brain, / And feel no stir of joy and pain." The transition to the "Earthly plain" to a more mental one is a bit harsh, but the poem goes further away from the physical and more towards mental where the image juxtaposition of "throbless heart and heartless brain"
Now is the speaker saying "don't feel joy or pain" -- no. The cause of these feelings are a "throbless heart and heartless brain." And even though they might be separate ideas -- within the form of the enclosed stanza -- they are forced to be connected. Don't feel joy or pain through by not having a heart or reconciling your emotions and your intellect.
And if one is overly intellectual or emotional -- then the joy (false without context) and pain (exaggerated just to feel) will be excruciating.
3) "They sleep and dream and have no weight / To curb their rest, of love or hate" "Rest" in this sentence is used in the noun form -- so what the line implies has a dual focus -- yes the rest of being dead; however, the other focus is time to think -- not to make snap judgments.
For example, when the dead "sleep, and dream and have no weight" there's the literal of sleeping, dreaming and well having no weight, but there's also the intellectual (where this stanza focuses on) where the time spent on not being stressed and thinking reevaluates the generalizations like love or hate.
The anaphora stops in the last stanza which break the expectations. Now the poem shifts to the current living world with "strange men should flee their company." -- not to be taken literally (or maybe yes if you're into that). Men who don't look back at the "dead" (let's say history) are strange.
Then the weight of the either/or gambit -- the speaker's intent. "think me strange who long to be / wrapped in their cool immunity. So here there's a placed judgment by the speaker who thinks others would call him strange to be "in their cool immunity" (note -- not being dead -- even though past me saw the lines as suicidal).
What the speaker desires is what the dead men are capable of doing: have the time to see the world grow, not feel joy or pain, not love and hate -- or rather feel or be the extremes. Death is more of a middle ground.