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18 November 2015

The Night was wide, and furnished scant

The Night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single Star —
That often as a Cloud it met —
Blew out itself — for fear —

The Wind pursued the little Bush —
And drove away the Leaves
November left — then clambered up
And fretted in the Eaves —

No Squirrel went abroad —
A Dog's belated feet
Like intermittent Plush, be heard
Adown the empty street —

To feel if Blinds be fast —
And closer to the fire —
Her little Rocking Chair to draw —
And shiver for the Poor —

The Housewife's gentle Task —
How pleasanter — said she
Unto the Sofa opposite —
The Sleet — than May, no Thee —
                                             F617 (1863)  J589

I like this snug little winter poem with it simple message. One of life's pleasures is drawing up by the fire with a loved one while outside the winter's night is cold and windy.

The first two stanzas are in ballad form: alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter. They also read like a ballad, Dickinson establishing a very atmospheric scene. The few stars that can be seen disappear quickly under the clouds. Down below the wind shakes the bushes and scatters the leaves. It is so cold that the remnant warmth of November goes for shelter up under the eaves.
        Dickinson adjusts the meter in the following two stanzas to be iambic trimeter, the third line in iambic tetrameter. It gives the poem a more abrupt tone but also highlights the longer line – which in both stanzas is softer and gentler, the plush of the dog, the dip of the rocking chair.
  I am not one of those folks who dislikes anthropomorphism. I like it when Dickinson has the natural world acting out of emotion or described in human terms. It is a bracing opposite of the deep abstraction she can employ – sometimes in the same poem. In this one she has a timid little star, so timid it blows itself out when faced with a cloud. She has a fierce wind harrassing bushes and leaves and even driving November away.
        Another thing people cherish about Dickinson is her ability to drop a killer phrase into a line. Here we have the deserted street: no one is abroad, not even squirrels. But there is a 'belated' dog whose feet pad along like "intermittent Plush". Lovely! The tactile sense of 'plush' is transformed into an aural sense.

The last two stanzas bring us inside. The Housewife checks the window dressings then draws her rocking chair close to the fire, giving a sympathetic shiver for the Poor who might not have a warm and cozy room. All this is summarized as her "gentle Task", for in spring and summer she is no doubt doing much harder work. Or perhaps Dickinson is ironically suggesting that to shiver for the poor while next to the fire is an easy thing.
        The poem ends with the housewife talking to the sofa across from her. We must assume that the sofa has an occupant, probably the husband. "The Sleet is pleasanter," she tells him, "than May without Thee."  Dickinson may be projecting an alternate self into this poem, one where she had not chosen the 'Belt around [her] life' of the truth-saying poet's life. Either way, it is a lovely and loving poem.


  1. I wonder if that sofa could be empty; I was left with that feeling. May might be harder to take with the husband gone than the present sleety conditions are without him, as in "I dreaded that first Robin so," or "The Morning after Woe," where nature parades her joys before her victim ...

    1. You know, when I first read it I thought Dickinson was making a bit of a dig at the husband as if he were simply an upholstered presence that together with the rocking chair made the fireside ambiance complete. If this is so, referring to him as "sofa" is certainly kinder than 'couch potato'.

      I take your point about how the last line could be read that May would be more difficult than a cozy fire in his absence. Dickinson is so delightfully ambiguous.

    2. Ha, I love both of these alternative readings. Delightfully ambiguous, indeed. Both of these readings might point back to that single scant star in the wide night that "blows itself out" through fear when a cloud passes over it.

  2. If the date of this poem is accurate, it was written during the time when Higginson was away at war. It might be that the poem was written for him.

    1. If so, and it is more than plausible, this would be a very nice addition to Civil War poetry: The empty couch on a cold night prompting memories of love and well-being. Among the 'Poor' the housewife shivers for would be the soldiers on the field.

  3. Ugh, this poem is so good. That first stanza all by itself would make a great poem, with that star that blew itself out from fear. I'm reminded of the poem,

    "Which put the Candle out?
    A jealous Zephyr—not a doubt—
    Ah, friend, You little knew
    How long at that celestial wick
    The Angels—labored diligent"

    In both poems the star (or celestial wick) is put through fear (or jealousy). She returns to this idea again in the poem,

    "The spry Arms of the Wind
    if I could crawl between"

    It's such an insightful way to look at what we do to ourselves through our fears and jealousies, that we put out our own bright stars, which might, after all, be the only one shining in the wide night, and might

    "have been the Light House Spark—
    Some Sailor—rowing in the Dark—
    Had importuned to see—
    It might have been the waning Lamp
    That lit the Drummer— from the Camp—
    To purer Reveille."

    1. "is put through fear" should be "is put out through fear"

  4. On a different note, I love your take on the aural sense of "plush", and would just add that "adown" in the next line seems to be a pun. Plush down, which does add to the coziness of this poem.

    That belated plush adown of the dog's feet on the empty street is a contrast not unlike that single star in the wide night. I read a kind of Penelope tale here. The star almost blew itself out, or threatens to. This could be a metaphor for either Odysseus or Penelope here. But the wind pursuing the little bush and the squirrel going abroad are both possible metaphors of Odysseus going out and searching for sirens. The dog too, coming back "belatedly", like Odysseus. An errant husband.

    "To feel if blinds be fast", the start of the fourth paragraph, seems at first to refer back to that dog of the third, as if he is coming back to feel if he still has a home, if there is a fire,

    "A Dog's belated feet
    Like intermittent Plush, be heard
    Adown the empty street —

    To feel if Blinds (still) be fast —
    And (to be) closer to the fire —"

    But then in the next line, with that "Her", you realize that these lines are referring to the woman, that she is fastening the blinds, securing the house. ED achieves this effectd by starting with the object of the sentence instead of the subject. The subject doesn't come until the fifth paragraph: "The wife's gentle task". There could be some sarcasm in referring the "gentle task" back to "shiver for the poor" as you suggest, but I want to read it as a heartfelt sadness.

    Perhaps she is shivering for the errant husband too?

    The ambiguity at the end, of whether that sofa is empty or full, as discussed above, fits the scenario of the errant husband either way you look at it. Either he is there on the sofa, and it is pleasanter to be with him during the winter than spring would be without him OR he is gone, and the sleet is more pleasant without him than May would be. You really can see it either way, depending on how you "slant" your view.

    Of course, I'm for the dog who has sense enough to come home.

    1. I appreciate your teasing out the grammar and sense of the last two stanzas. I remember being a bit snarled in it.

      I'm very much taken with thinking of Odysseus here. Yes, the wandering and returning, the faithful household preparations, the possibly empty chair long awaiting the master -- or perhaps holding him at last. And don't we all try to follow our star -- even when it tucks untimely out of sight, marooning us in strange places. How warming then to think of that faithful housewife and her kind thoughts.

  5. Susan’s first explication paragraph says it all:

    “I like this snug little winter poem with it simple message. One of life's pleasures is drawing up by the fire with a loved one while outside the winter's night is cold and windy.”

    To twist Stanza 5 into sarcastic irony fails my sniff test:

    “The Housewife's gentle Task —
    How pleasanter — said she
    Unto the Sofa opposite —
    [To sit alone by the fire on a sleeting night – than spend a day in May with you.]

    Sometimes we so want metaphorical messages in ED’s poems that we manufacture them. The same is true for biographical messages, ahem, ahem. Compelling documentation, such as ED’s letters or poems, peer-reviewed publications, and original quantitative research, help minimize flights of fancy. As a last resort, common sense must serve when we have no objective evidence.