Study Guide

This Hour and What Is Dead Quotes

  • Family

    Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
    through bare rooms over my head, (1-2)

    We're introduced to our speaker in the words "my head," but he's basically out of sight otherwise. These lines are all about his brother. In fact, the speaker simply acts as a reference point for where his brother is (upstairs). Right away this establishes that, in their relationship, our speaker puts his relatives first. He's more of an afterthought.

    My father keeps a light on by our bed
    and readies for our journey. (12-13)

    The poem changes scenes but remains firmly focused on family, turning now to the speaker's father. Even though our speaker uses the word "my" again, it's really all about who he is in relation to his father. He's included in that word "our," and portraying himself as part of that first person plural is a way of stressing that he's a part of a bigger, more important unit (the family). At this point of the poem, he doesn't seem like much of an individual.

    He mends ten holes in the knees
    of five pairs of boy's pants. (14-15)

    Aw, that's sweet. Papa is totally taking care of his kids here, and by sewing no less. What's so great about this description is that not only does it tell us how much the speaker's dad loved his sons, but it also tells us just how much the speaker respects his old man in return. He's acknowledging all the hard work his dad put in to look after his youngsters. No wonder our speaker seems so torn up about his death.

    God, that old furnace, keeps talking
    with his mouth of teeth, (23-24)

    Because of the way this poem has established a sort of structure, God falls in the same place where our speaker's brother and father were before. God's like the super father, the patriarch, the guy at the tippy-top of the family tree. Add on top of this the familiarity of the phrase "that old furnace," and we get a strong sense that the relationship between our speaker and God is in many ways similar, or parallel, to a family relationship.

  • Mortality

    What could he be looking for in an empty house?
    What could he possibly need there in heaven? (4-5)

    While death has already been announced in the title, the word "heaven" is the moment that it enters the poem itself. Taking the brother (who up until now we have taken to be alive, walking around upstairs) and suddenly revealing him to be dead mimics the shock and trauma of death. We have to readjust to the new reality the poem has created.

    His love for me feels like spilled water
    running back to its vessel. (7-8)

    As sad as it is, death is totally and completely irreversible, kind of like attempting to put water back into the glass that it spills from. But here, the impossible happens; the irreversible is reversed.

    At this hour, what is dead is restless
    and what is living is burning. (9-10)

    This refrain, which gets tweaked throughout, presents a sort of relationship between the dead and the living. By putting those two groups back-to-back, we can't help but feel that the restlessness of the dead (their presence in our speaker's mind) is causing the restlessness of the living, too – that feeling of "burning" that our speaker just can't shake.

    At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
    and helpless. While the Lord lives. (29-30)

    For the most part, people tend to think of God as immortal, everlasting. But here, our speaker talks about the Lord living. And if you can live, well, then you can die, right? To suggest that the Lord can die expands the scope of death, so that not even God is beyond it. Yikes.

    with his mouth of teeth,
    a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
    of gasoline, airplane, human ash. (24-26)

    Aside from being strange and menacing, the really striking thing about this description of God is that it presents Him as the jaws through which death is entered (and life is ended). Whoa. And, at least in this poem, death seems to be the most important act or aspect of God. Uplifting? Not so much.

  • Love

    His love for me feels like spilled water
    running back to its vessel. (7-8)

    Despite the huge distance between the living and the dead, our speaker still feels his brother's love. And that love exists in a way that is very present, and immediate. But it's also a bit confusing. Using a visual image to describe a physical or emotional feeling, well, that sounds a lot like synesthesia, or a blending of the senses. Perhaps our speaker is so overwhelmed with emotion that he can only use visual imagery to describe it. He can't quite say just what he feels.

    Someone tell him he should sleep now. (11, 22)

    On the one hand, this is a very gentle, loving way to try and lay these thoughts of his brother to rest. He's not saying, "Quit your walking around over my head!" The way he says it shows us his real love for his brother. But on the other hand, this line also tells us that our speaker is sick and tired of his constant awareness of his brother's love (and the grief that comes with it). The dude just wants a break. He wants some peace. We can't help but wonder, though, whether if his brother did give him some peace, our speaker wouldn't be a little bit sad, even lonely.

    He mends ten holes in the knees
    of five pairs of boy's pants. (14-15)

    This act of mending is a quiet, domestic image of a father's love for his children. Even though it's not explicitly connected to love, it carries with it a clear picture of providing and caring for his children, which sounds a lot like love to Shmoop.

    His love for me is like his sewing:
    various colors and too much thread,
    the stitching uneven. […] (16-18)

    Love isn't perfect, and that's something our speaker knows well. Through this image, he acknowledges that his father, in the way he loved his children, had his faults. Maybe the man could be overbearing ("too much thread") and inconsistent ("the stitching uneven").

    […] But the needle pierces
    clean through with each stroke of his hand. (18-19)

    His father's love might be imperfect, but it sure is powerful. Could it even be all the more powerful for its imperfections? A perfect love would be a general ideal. This imperfect love, on the other hand, is specific to his father. It's the same as how we come to love the little faults and oddities of the people we love. That mole or lisp or tendency to quote Kung Fu movies becomes part of what defines a person as <em>that</em> person, and no one else. It's what makes them special.

    His love for me feels like fire,
    feels like doves, feels like river-water. (27-28)

    God's love, as our speaker tells it, feels like it comes at you from three directions at once. All three of these images imply movement and action. The fire is burning, the doves are flying, the water is running. Again we see that love can be complicated, even contradictory (it can feel like fire as well as water).

    I've had enough of his love
    that feels like burning and flight and running away. (32-33)

    This is the moment when our speaker finally comes out and admits what he's been hinting at with that refrain "Somebody tell him he should sleep." He finally announces his frustration at being so bound up in and defined by his relationship to others. He proclaims himself as an individual by using that first "I." And how does he distinguish himself? By pulling away from love, which, as we've seen, is a powerful connecting force. It is through this stepping back from love (which brings with it all that loss and death) that our speaker hopes to get some relief. But do you really think he will?

  • Exile

    Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches? (6)

    This line definitely plays with the idea of exile. You cannot go back home if your home has been burned down, and so the death of his brother is a form of exile. His brother can never return from heaven.

    My father keeps a light on by our bed
    and readies for our journey. (12-13)

    We don't know about you, but this image gives Shmoop the sense that this father wants to be ready to make like a banana and split at a moment's notice. By itself, this quote is not very clear about what's actually going on, but when the word "fugitive" follows close behind, it helps nudge us toward thinking there's at least a suggestion that this family is on the run.

    At this hour, what is dead is worried
    and what is living is fugitive. (20-21)

    Wait. Why is our speaker a fugitive? Aside from being falsely accused of murdering his wife (we're looking at you Harrison Ford), what other reasons could a person have for running away? Our speaker doesn't sound like much of a criminal. Maybe he's just fleeing the thoughts and memories of his loved ones so he can finally get a full night's sleep.

    […] his breath
    of gasoline, airplane, human ash. (25-26)

    Gasoline and airplanes call to mind travel, which is a form of escape. And the mention of human ash brings us face-to-face with death again, which is certainly one form of exile from life and the world, although not exactly a good one.

    I've had enough of his love
    that feels like burning and flight and running away. (32-33)

    "Running away" says it quite clearly, and "flight," which calls back to the doves mentioned earlier in the poem, also makes us think of fleeing. The fact that our speaker wants nothing to do with God's love, and God's love is connected to flight and running away, makes the complicated nature of escape even more complicated. Why does God's love feel like escape? And if it does, then why does our speaker want to escape it?