Study Guide

This Hour and What Is Dead

This Hour and What Is Dead Summary

Up late one night, our narrator hears or imagines sounds above him in the house. He thinks about his brother, who is dead. He experiences restlessness and his brother's love. His train of thought leads him to contemplate the relationship between the living and the dead. He longs for peace for his brother and for himself.

He then goes through a similar train of thought regarding his father, thinking about his father's love and the power of it (as well as its imperfection). Our narrator again makes a plea for peace, for his father and for himself.

Finally, he follows the same pattern of thought, but this time contemplating God, and God's love, which can be powerful and contradictory according to our speaker. He ends by asking for peace from God's love, which just won't leave the poor guy alone.

  • Lines 1-8

    Lines 1-3

    Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
    through bare rooms over my head,
    opening and closing doors.

    • Our speaker hears his brother clomping around the house on a floor above him.
    • The mention of the heavy boots sounds kind of ominous, right? Especially since we started with an already-ominous title, "This Hour and What Is Dead." At the very least, those boots are out of place in a quiet house at night.
    • What is his brother doing up there, anyway? Especially if the rooms are "bare"? And what's with all the opening and closing of doors?
    • It's an open opening. This poem could go in just about any direction.

    Line 4

    What could he be looking for in an empty house?

    • Our speaker wonders at the motivations of his brother, what he could be searching for. But he also seems to be wondering what we're wondering. He's asking us a question, after all.
    • For our part, we're wondering why the house is empty. Is someone moving out or in? What's going on? Is the brother even there? How can a house be empty with people in it? So many questions, so few answers.
    • The spookiness in the title is reinforced by the emptiness of the house and this mystery of his brother's actions.

    Line 5

    What could he possibly need there in heaven?

    • Wait a second. Our speaker's brother is dead? Oh. Well that explains it.
    • Apparently, the whole upstairs business is really just a metaphor for heaven, where the speaker's brother now is.
    • We get the feeling that maybe the real scene is more like this: our speaker, awake late at night, listens to the typical creaks and groans of the house, and thinks of his brother. He imagines those sounds to be his brother shuffling around above him.
    • Clearly there's a strong connection between these brothers. Even though the speaker's brother is dead, the speaker imagines him very much alive, and even in the same house. How sad.
    • For our speaker, it's a thin line between memory and imagination. He remembers his brother, and knows he's gone. But he also imagines him to be present, too.

    Line 6

    Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?

    • Our speaker asks if his dead brother remembers the earth, his birthplace, which was burned.
    • "Birthplace" could refer to the whole earth or to the actual place where his brother was born, but, without any other information, we're going to assume it refers to the whole earth.
    • Of course assuming this raises the question: what would it mean if the earth has been set to torches?
    • We're guessing that the "set to torches" can work metaphorically in a couple of ways:
    • First, it might signify the emotional intensity of our speaker's experience, here in the living world. In other words, his brother's death could fill the world with the burning intensity of loss.
    • Second, it could refer to the fact that, now dead, the brother can never return to the earth, as you can never move back into a house if it has been burned down.
    • Still, because of the ambiguous way that this line is phrased, we can't completely avoid the hint that maybe there was a real event in the past: maybe the house where his brother was born was actually burned down, or the country in which he was born is in turmoil. We don't have enough information to even begin to piece things together, but that hint of a family trauma lingers in the background of the poem.

    Lines 7-8

    His love for me feels like spilled water
    running back to its vessel.

    • The speaker compares the feeling of his brother's love to spilled water running back into its container using a simile.
    • It's a cool image, huh? Like watching a spill on rewind – the water rolling back into the cup, the cup standing upright again.
    • Okay, that's great and all, but what exactly does this image mean in terms of the poem?
    • For one thing, it suggests restoration. A unity (between the cup and the water) that had once been lost has now been brought back.
    • Plus, check out the word choice here. The use of "vessel," instead of a word like "cup" or "glass," also suggests that the experience, or remembering, or imagining his brother's love might be like bringing his brother (briefly) back to life. After all, death could be described as the spirit/soul being spilled from its vessel (the body). (We know, we're pretty deep sometimes.)
    • This simile might also suggest that the love feels impossible in a way, or at least not logical. After all, in this world, spilled water doesn't generally run back into its vessel. Come on, we wouldn't have so many paper towel commercials if we could just unspill things, would we?
  • Lines 9-11

    Lines 9-10

    At this hour, what is dead is restless
    and what is living is burning.

    • Big Moment. In lines that echo the title (that's how you know this is a Big Moment, folks), our speaker expresses something like this: I imagine that the dead are restless, and I happen to be full of turbulent emotions right now, too, thank you very much.
    • Despite the fact that emotions are running high, our speaker communicates this in a rather detached way, as if simply listing a couple of facts. Plus, he avoids saying "I."
    • Who are these restless dead? Well the only dead person we have in the poem so far is the speaker's brother, who is quite restless, based on his description. He's rumbling around upstairs, slamming doors.
    • The narrator could be restless, too. After all, he's awake in the middle of the night.
    • And that burning also makes us think of the birthplace set to torches again, doesn't it? There sure is a lot of destruction going on.

    Line 11

    Someone tell him he should sleep now.

    • Our speaker wants his brother to sleep, perhaps because he's sick of the noisy thumping upstairs, or perhaps because he wants his brother to find eternal peace. Hey, perhaps it's both.
    • The word "sleep" is the first official evidence that backs up our suspicions that this poem is taking place at night, and that "This Hour" is probably one of the very early hours of the morning – you know, the wee hours?
    • It's a strange thing to say, because it seems as though the speaker is the one who's restless, not someone else. He can't sleep, and stays up hearing creaks in the house and thinking of his brother. In a way, what he's saying might be: please quiet these thoughts of my brother so I can sleep.
    • There's also a sense of detachment from the brother. Our speaker asks for someone to "tell him," which suggests that our speaker himself can't tell his brother. Maybe that's because he's still alive (and therefore not with his brother in heaven), or maybe he just doesn't have the courage to do so. Maybe he isn't willing to admit to his brother that he'd rather he left him alone.
    • In fact, this line almost reads like a prayer, only it's directed vaguely to "someone," rather than specifically to God. Please, someone, tell my brother to pipe down.
  • Lines 12-22

    Lines 12-13

    My father keeps a light on by our bed
    and readies for our journey.

    • New image, new person. We've shifted scenes to one in which our speaker's father is getting ready for a journey.
    • We're not sure, given how the brother was introduced, what to make of the presence of the father, too. The brother was introduced as though he was there in the house, then we found out he was dead. Is it the same with the father? Is this a memory?
    • Plus, when we see "our bed," we wonder who the "our" refers to, adding to our confusion.
    • It could be that the "our" refers to the speaker and his brother, since it's more likely that two brothers would share a bed than a father and son.
    • What is this journey they made, or are making? Is this remembered or imagined, or both?
    • Whatever the case, our speaker doesn't seem too concerned with the point. The fact that the father is in some way present seems to be what's important, not any other specifics.
    • We'll just have to keep reading to see if we can find out more.

    Lines 14-15

    He mends ten holes in the knees
    of five pairs of boy's pants.

    • The speaker's father is mending his sons' pants, an image of family life.
    • How did all the knees get worn out? It could just be a lot of playing around in the dirt, as boys are known to do.
    • But it could also be that a lot of kneeling did it, which suggests prayer or something of that sort. In any case, it's clear that this father is a caring guy. He mends his sons' pants, and he keeps a light by their bed, probably to make the young boys feel safer.

    Lines 16-19

    His love for me is like his sewing:
    various colors and too much thread,
    the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
    clean through with each stroke of his hand.

    • Using a handy-dandy simile, our speaker describes his father's love as being "like his sewing," which isn't exactly perfect. But hey, it gets the job done.
    • It seems as though his father's love is a mixed bag, too: it's not perfect, but it sure has a powerful effect, shown by the word "pierces."
    • Our speaker clearly is at least a little in awe of this power of his father's love, even if he's also aware of its less-than-ideal qualities.
    • And it looks like we're following a pattern here, doesn't it? First we had the brother and his love. Then we have the father and his love. What's next?

    Lines 20-21

    At this hour, what is dead is worried
    and what is living is fugitive.

    • Here's our translation of these lines: I imagine my dead father is worried, and I myself feel like a fugitive.
    • The refrain has been changed a little, but we definitely recognize it from earlier in the piece, too. All that's different are the adjectives that describe the dead and the living. It seems like those adjectives are always based on the stanza that precedes them.
    • We feel more convinced that the father, too, is dead, when we have this refrain of "what is dead." More family tragedy for our poor speaker.
    • And when we learn that our speaker is (or feels) like a fugitive, we have to ask: fugitive from what? His memories? His past? The long arm of the law? (Okay, probably not that last one.)
    • "Fugitive" might also have something to do with that journey that the father is preparing for in line 13. Perhaps the memory is from a time when their family was on the run?
    • And of course that brings us to Lee's own biography. Before he was born, his family had to flee China for political reasons. And then his family had to flee Indonesia when he was a young child, for other political reasons.
    • There was a lot of fleeing in Lee's past, so we might think of these lines as a kind of personal allusion. We can't prove that they're autobiographical, but it does sound possible, doesn't it?
    • Although we don't know much about the family history that is being remembered or imagined here, we do get a sense of the deep emotional undercurrent that flows in our speaker. He seems almost haunted by these images of his brother and father.

    Line 22

    Someone tell him he should sleep now.

    • Our speaker repeats his plea, but this time he asks someone to tell his father, not his brother, to sleep.
    • Since this is the same request as for his dead brother, we're now about 99.9% positive that, yes, his father is dead as well. No wonder our speaker can't sleep.
    • There's also that strong hint again, that what our speaker wants – though he won't come out and say it – is peace for himself. He asks for peace for his father, but it's also a way of asking for a break from these thoughts of his father.
    • His brother and father sure are making a racket in this poor speaker's brain. Memories have a way of doing that, don't they?
  • Lines 23-28

    Lines 23-26

    God, that old furnace, keeps talking
    with his mouth of teeth,
    a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
    of gasoline, airplane, human ash.

    • Our speaker now imagines God as a strange combination of images: a furnace, teeth, a stained beard, breath made up of gasoline, airplane, human ash. Yikes.
    • This description is definitely weird, and more than a little confusing. But hey, that's cool. We can roll with the punches.
    • More than anything, though, this image is pretty terrifying. It's like an image of God as a devourer, as a cremator.
    • God being a furnace sounds all right – a source of heat and warmth, that's good, right? Plus it also connects to all the burning we've seen earlier in the poem. Maybe it's all coming together.
    • Enter teeth. Those are not so warm and fuzzy. In fact, they're downright menacing.
    • And then there's the matter of the stained beard, which makes God seem kind of wild and unruly.
    • Feasts are good though, right? We all like to gorge ourselves every now and then.
    • But then there's that breath. First of all, it definitely wouldn't smell good. Gasoline? Airplanes? Human ash? That combo puts garlic and onions to shame.
    • Plus, that last one really makes our knees tremble. Human ash means dead bodies. There's no way around that one.
    • And when you combine the furnace image with the human ash in God's breath… well, it looks like God's been eating people again, according to our speaker. This retroactively makes that stained beard and those feasts a lot more terrifying. Shudder.
    • This connection to death also provides a link to the speaker's brother and father. As he remembers his dead brother and dead father, he can't also help but think of God.
    • And just as thoughts of his brother and father keep him restlessly awake, could these thoughts of God be bothering him, too? After all, God "keeps talking." That can't be helping with the insomnia.
    • What's particularly interesting here is that this stanza on God fits the form that the poem has already developed – a larger stanza that introduces a character, who so far has been a family member, followed by a refrain. It almost seems like God is introduced like another one of his family members, which adds intimacy to the relationship.
    • But let's not get lost in all the metaphors and lose sight of what's really going on. Don't forget that our speaker is literally lying awake at night. So maybe all that yammering on that God's doing is really just the furnace, clanging and clanking as it warms the room.

    Lines 27-28

    His love for me feels like fire,
    feels like doves, feels like river-water.

    • In keeping with the pattern he has set up in the poem, our speaker now has to compare the love of God with… something, using a simile.
    • In this case, our speaker compares God's love to fire, doves, and river water.
    • Now that's a combination. In fact, this description also sounds a lot like a mixed bag, just like his father's love. (In that way, this comparison makes a connection between the father and God.)
    • Fire and water seem contradictory, and doves aren't even an element! What are they doing in the mix? Clearly God's love, as experienced by our speaker, is a complicated thing.
    • In any case, though, this combination of images suggests purity, or at least the ability to purify.
    • How so? Well, fire can burn things clean; it can sterilize; it can reduce things to a small essence (like a person to ash in an urn). The mention of doves calls to mind that these birds are often used as symbols of peace, and the fact that they're pure white. And water (do we need to say it?) washes things clean.
    • Not that they're therefore all the same. We'd much rather be washed in river water than "purified" by fire.
    • Of course, these lines are also an allusion to the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. In Christian traditions, all three of these things – fire, the dove, and water – act as symbols of the Holy Spirit.
    • So maybe, according to our speaker, God's love feels like, well, the Holy Spirit. That certainly sounds a lot more pleasant than teeth.
  • Lines 29-33

    Lines 29-30

    At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
    and helpless. While the Lord lives.

    • Our speaker characterizes the dead (his brother and father?) as kind and helpless, and then tells us that they are these things while God is alive. Huh?
    • This time the refrain ends ominously. Does this mean that the dead are kind and helpless only as long as the Lord lives? Does it mean they are helpless in spite of the fact that the Lord lives?
    • Is our speaker grateful toward God, or is he downright resentful? Oh, and does this mean the Lord will die? So many questions, so few answers.
    • But if you think about it, the suggestion of God dying makes sense in this poem. After all, God fits into the list of the dead, after brother and father. Both of those men have already died, so in grouping them all together, it seems natural to assume that God, too, will die.
    • And if we follow the logic of that thought through, we have to consider what exactly would happen if the Lord did die, at least in terms of the poem.
    • Perhaps it means that the dead would no longer be helpless. Or that they would no longer be kind.
    • But there's also the resentment angle. Maybe our speaker is bitter that the Lord lives, and eternally at that, while his brother and father have died, and can't ever come back. Not fair, he seems to say.

    Line 31

    Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.

    • Our speaker wants the Lord (with his fiery, winged, river-y love) to just leave him be.
    • Given the complicated description of God's love, it seems the speaker is overwhelmed by it. And definitely overstimulated. He's trying to sleep, and the Lord keeps chattering away in his furnace form.
    • If we read this line back onto the couple of lines before, it gives some credence to our resentment theory. If the speaker resents the fact that God gets to live eternally, while his family members die, well then, we can understand his bitterness.
    • Notice, though, that he's not telling the Lord to leave him alone. Nope, he wants someone else to do it. Or maybe he's just giving God the silent treatment.

    Lines 32-33

    I've had enough of his love
    that feels like burning and flight and running away.

    • Confirmed. Our speaker has had his fill of the powerful, complicated love of God.
    • That "I" in "I've" is striking, because it's the first time our speaker has used that pronoun to refer to himself.
    • Saying "I" now seems to go along with what our speaker is trying to communicate here. He wants to separate himself from God and from thoughts of his dead family members. And so by saying "I" he's making sure we know that he's independent, no longer defined only by his relation to the others.
    • Burning, flight, and running away run parallel to that other simile he used for God's love: fire, doves, and river-water. Again, God's love feels like these symbols of the Holy Spirit.
    • "Burning" also connects us yet again to the lines about the brother's birthplace set to the torch, and the burning in line 10, and the furnace, and so on. "Flight" and "running away" link to the word "fugitive" in line 21. This is a poem that circles back on itself, in both form and content.
    • This speaker just can't seem to escape the thoughts of his dead brother, his dead father, and the living God. He's trapped in insomnia by them, and only wants some peace.
    • Will he get it?