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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. 

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