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08 August 2012

I know some lonely Houses off the Road

I know some lonely Houses off the Road
A Robber'd like the look of—
Wooden barred,
And Windows hanging low,
Inviting to—
A Portico,
Where two could creep—
One—hand the Tools—
The other peep—
To make sure all's asleep—
Old fashioned eyes—
Not easy to surprise!

How orderly the Kitchen'd look, by night,
With just a Clock—
But they could gag the Tick—
And Mice won't bark—
And so the Walls—don't tell—

A pair of Spectacles ajar just stir—
An Almanac's aware—
Was it the Mat—winked,
Or a Nervous Star?
The Moon—slides down the stair—
To see who's there!

There's plunder—where—
Tankard, or Spoon—
Earring—or Stone—
A Watch—Some Ancient Brooch
To match the Grandmama—
Staid sleeping—there—

The Sun has got as far
As the third Sycamore—
Screams Chanticleer
"Who's there"?

And Echoes—Trains away,
While the old Couple, just astir,
Fancy the Sunrise—left the door ajar!
                                                                                 F 311 (1862)  289

Oh, this one is just fun. Here’s Miss Dickinson planning to burgle a nice “old Couple” while they sleep. I see her acting the poem out, declaiming it as an actress would and using plenty of gestures. She creeps and peeps and snatches plunder and then stealthily steals away.
            The first line sets the scene and readers know they’re in for a story. We Dickinson fans are waiting for the twist that surprises us into some higher consciousness, but for once we are treated to a simple story. It would go well at night, sitting with an audience of children, perhaps, out on the front steps.
            We first see the house from the eyes of the robbers. It’s a tempting target with its “Windows hanging low and a portico or porch that helps shield them from view. Then the vantage shifts and we see it rather objectively although from the point of view of a woman. Instead of looking at locks and doors we instead see how the kitchen looks “orderly,” and how the spectacles are lying open on some shelf. An almanac is open. It’s also “aware”—must be all the intelligence it holds that gives it this faculty. Even the door mat gets a mention.
            The “plunder” doesn’t sound particularly rich: a tankard, silver spoon, earrings, old jewelry. The “Ancient Brooch” matches the sleeping “Grandmama.” She is “staid” as well as “old fashioned.” She and Grandpapa are simple, trusting sould. Even their rooster is slow off the mark. He doesn’t get alarmed until the sun hits “the third Sycamore.” And by that time the robbers have made their getaway. They are as distant as the receding trains whose whistles can be heard far off in the distance.
The Dickinson house looks pretty tempting. Maybe
she was trying to encourage them to be more watchful...
            The last stanza has the old couple wondering why their door is open. “The sunrise did it,” is their best guess. They may never miss the stolen objects or figure out how the robbers gagged the ticking clock. The mice aren’t talking and the walls are as uncommunicative as always.
            I wonder if Dickinson isn’t making a fond joke about the forgetful elderly. They hobble off to bed forgetting to shut the door. They have misplaced some things. It’s as if burglers paid a visit in the night. Heck, I’ve had days like that. The old jewelry is eventually found behind some book, the spoon is down the garbage disposal, and the earrings … well, I never have figured out where they go!
            To help the oral delivery (whether aloud or just to the internal ear), Dickinson weaves in slant and recurring rhymes. The second half of the first stanza, for example, has (and I’m adjusting spelling and punctuation for modern tastes): “Inviting, too; / A portico, / Where two could creep — / One—hand the Tools— / The other [robber] peep[s]– / To make sure all’s asleep— / Old fashioned eyes— / [Are] not easy to surprise!”
            That gives us “too / Portico / two; creep / peep / asleep; and eyes / surprise. These are quiet sounds and the stanza should be read in a suspenseful whisper. The second stanza has ‘noisier’ rhymes, and words with hard consonants: Kitchen / Clock / Tick / bark. My favorite line is the one where “The Moon—slides down the stair— / To see whose there!”


  1. That’s my favorite line too!
    Thank you.

  2. "We Dickinson fans are waiting for the twist that surprises us into some higher consciousness." Yes, true, always looking for that. But maybe there are a couple here? "Old fashioned eyes/ Not easy to surprise -" The first time through you think, the old fashioned eyes are "not easy to surprise," so they are going to NOT be surprised by the burglars and will wake up and catch them. But then when the couple DOESN'T wake up, you realize that the old fashioned eyes weren't easy to surprise because they weren't easy to wake up. So old fashioned seems to be a bad thing, because they get robbed, but then ends up being fine in the end. (Also, the thieves represent the "new", being surprised by the new, the new more desperate fashion of stealing things, of gagging time.)

    It's odd that the thieves left by the door. It seems to me they would've crawled back out of the windows. So when I first read this I thought the couple had left the door ajar on all along and the silly thieves could've come in by the front door. The old couple woke up and were fancying the sunrise through it. But the syntax does suggest that the sunrise itself opened the door. Thanks for helping with that reading. It's the cutest thing thinking of the couple supposing the sunrise opened the door.

    And that's the other twist of consciousness I think, that old fashioned eyes need NOT be surprised, because the sunrise will be waiting for them, like always. It will even open the front door for them. Never mind that the ancient brooch and other stuff has gone out. Who needs it when you have the sunrise?

    The fact that the lost things go out the same door as the greater thing gained is perhaps the meaningful crux of the poem.

    I love that all of the objects of the house seem to "see" what's going on, the spectacles stirring on their own, the almanac aware, the moon coming down to watch, the door mat winking. Winking! This poem is winking at us like the door mat.

    One question I have though is why did the thieves gag the clock? How would that've helped them?

    And maybe one more question; why is the mat-winking confused with a nervous star? (What a great way of thinking about the twinkle of a star though, that it's nervous. Like the thieves!)

  3. Odd juxtaposition or comic relief? Franklin places this fun poem, F311, immediately after ten psychologically painful poems, F301-F310. That’s odd because ED placed F311 first in Fascicle 13 and F301-F310 together in Fascicle 14. I’m sure Franklin did his best to get composition order correct, based on handwriting, etc., but his logic escapes me here. Maybe he thought it was time to give us some comic relief.

  4. Speculation

    This poem (F311) was a present to Edward (Ned) Dickinson on his first birthday, June 19, 1862. On his actual birth day in 1861, his present from his “Uncle Emily” had been ‘Is it true, Dear Sue?’ (F189).

    ‘I know some lonely Houses off the Road’, a make-believe robbery poem, became an annual drama at Evergreen at his birthday party each June 19th, enacted by Ned, the lead robber, and ED, his accomplice.

    “Although the poem Emily Dickinson sent to Susan at Ned’s birth admits her “fear of joggling Him!” (L232), she developed a very close and gleeful relationship with her nephew. They shared a pleasure in playing with words. “Ned tells that the Clock purrs and the Kitten ticks. He inherits his Uncle Emily’s ardor for the lie,” Dickinson crowed in a letter to her friend Elizabeth Holland, when Ned was not yet five (L315)”.

  5. Of course, the surprise birthday party might also have been held at Homestead, where the snoring "Grandmama" and "Spectacled" grandfather would add to the laughter.