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15 September 2011

On such a night, or such a night,

On such a night, or such a night,
Would anybody care
If such a little figure
Slipped quiet from its chair—

So quiet—Oh how quiet,
That nobody might know
But that the little figure
Rocked softer—to and fro—

On such a dawn, or such a dawn—
Would anybody sigh
That such a little figure
Too sound asleep did lie

For Chanticleer to wake it—
Or stirring house below—
Or giddy bird in orchard—
Or early task to do?

There was a little figure plump
For every little knoll—
Busy needles, and spools of thread—
And trudging feet from school—

Playmates, and holidays, and nuts—
And visions vast and small—
Strange that the feet so precious charged
Should reach so small a goal!
                                                                     - F 84 (1859)  146

Dickinson addresses both the ordinariness and pathos of the death of children. These must be good Puritan village children as they are very quiet—so quiet that when they die no one really notices. The little figure whose soul slips away while rocking on a chair is not remarked on. Others just think the rocking has become more quiet.
            Perhaps good Puritan families were more stoic than modern families, for the poet asks: “Would anybody care”? and “Would anybody sigh”? The implied answer is that, no, it was just a meek little figure. The word “figure” has a distancing effect, and for pathos it is always, three times, a “little figure”. But the real pathos is saved for the last two stanzas. Imagine, the poet says, that for all those little graves there was once a “little figure” going to and from school, playing and dreaming of the future in “visions great and small”. The small vision is consonant with the early death: the little grave, “so small a goal”.
            The grim, gray ordinariness of death is evoked by the quiet chants of “On such a night, or such a night,” and “On such a dawn, or such a dawn”.  There is no sense of tragedy except in the irony of the “precious” hopes ending at the grave.  No drama. The children simply slip away or die in their sleep. 


  1. It's funny, but it never occurred to me that this poem might be talking about children dying young. It always made me think of lonely old people, little because they are wizened with age, slipping away.

    It's come to mind again recently, thinking about my mum who is getting very old and feeble. I try to picture what she was like as a young girl, full of life and falling in love every week with characters from books or the cinema. I'll certainly care when she's gone :-(

    1. I had never thought of it as for older folks. But I see now that it might well be. I wonder if your mum might remember some stories from those young days. I hope so!

  2. I too thought it about an old woman as well, and even though the last two paragraphs of the poem elude to child activities, it still could be about an old, frail woman. This is a recurring theme of hers, dead children. Reminds me a bit of Gustav Mahler, who had the same fixation. And wrote a song cycle about it.

  3. Susan K’s interpretation rings true, especially the child with so much potential. The little girl might have become a creative wife and mother, excelled in school and social skills, enjoyed holidays and special treats, and, most of all, had dreams of yet unimagined achievements vast and small. Instead, this little girl died a child, with no chance to experience life.

    The closing lines leave me feeling depressed. What kind of god would doom a little girl to such pointless existence. Maybe that’s what ED wanted me to feel; maybe that’s what ED felt after watching too many children die.