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02 September 2022

At leisure is the Soul

At leisure is the Soul
That gets a Staggering Blow—
The Width of Life—before it spreads
Without a thing to do—

It begs you give it Work—
But just the placing Pins—
Or humblest Patchwork—Children do—
To still it’s noisy Hands—                  [To] Help its Vacant Hands –

Fr683  (J618)

I find this poem sad and acutely observant.  Dickinson sketches a young person who, before their life has a chance to develop, suffers a ‘Staggering Blow’. It might have been a death, disaster, disease, or some other devastation. Dickinson limns its extent as ‘The Width of Life’. There is no getting around it, no getting past it. Instead of spreading out, gaining vantage and perspective, gathering experience and skill, the staggered Soul spreads out thinly ‘Without a thing to do –‘.  Life stretches out, barren in its reaches. Any work the person, the Soul, might have undertaken is lost. There is nothing it is called to do.

Simple patchwork quilt
Janet Wickell at The Spruce
Yet the sufferer wants something to fill the time, some sort of Work.  Nothing, however, that demands commitment, creativity, or even much effort. What is wanted is the sort of simple work and projects that a child can do. Dickinson gives two examples, both having to do with sewing: placing pins so hems and seams are held in place while sewing and making simple patchwork quilts. The goal is not the sewing but the quieting of the sufferer’s ‘noisy Hands’. 

It’s easy to picture the stunted soul picking at things, rubbing their hands, drumming mindlessly – actions that must soothe, somehow, the deep wounds. Dickinson wrote an alternate phrase: instead of ‘To still it’s noisy Hands –‘, there is ‘To Help its vacant Hands’ –‘.  Both phrases are poignant – and sad.  One seeks to quiet the busy hands, the other to stir the Vacant hands to some sort of activity.

The contrast in word/phrase structure between ‘a Staggering Blow’ and ‘The Width of Life’ is remarkable. The anapestic ‘Staggering’ sounds staggering, especially followed by the strong blow of ‘Blow’. ‘The Width of Life’ follows directly after, and the slow lilt of its iambic syllables grant a terrible spaciousness to the ‘leisure’ that lies ahead.

The first stanza is powerful and concise, containing the ravage of trauma to a spreading soul, with the resulting (and ironic) lifelong ‘leisure’.  The second stanza has the sketch: we see an adult working mindlessly, killing time, distracting their hands with the simplest of tasks. The Hands, however, are more here than work-doers – Dickinson’s poetic subject is ‘the Soul’ and the Hands are the Soul’s hands. It is the Soul begging for work, the Soul whose hands are noisy or, worse, vacant.

Dickinson writes here in a type of hymn meter styled ‘short’: each stanza has three lines with six syllables and one line, the third, with eight. That’s not a lot of syllables in which to pack so much meaning.

Rhyme and alliteration help achieve the poem’s tight weave where nothing should be added and nothing can be removed. Soul, Blow, and do (used twice) give us ‘o’ sounds that lengthen word and  meaning. The first stanza uses Soul, Staggering, and Spreads to use the soft ‘s’ sound to deliver the ‘Blow’. The ‘w’ sounds in Width, Without, and Work almost whisper their meaning, Irony is woven into the very sound of the poem.


  1. Good description of shock and grief. Thanks for your comments. I enjoy your blog.

  2. This poem reminds me a little of the poem "Grief is a Mouse".

    "Grief is a Juggler -- boldest at the Play --
    Lest if He flinch -- the eye that way
    Pounce on His Bruises -- One -- say -- Or Three --"

    In Grief is a Mouse, the activity is self-conscious -- meant to distract others (and thereby the Griever) from the pain and to maintain a surface level of calm.

    In this poem, the griever is alone -- not thinking about others -- simply making a small occupation, not to distract but to engage in something tangible, mechanical.

    It is reminiscent as well of the poem "After great pain a formal feeling comes --".

    "The Feet, mechanical, go round --
    A Wooden way --
    Of Ground, or Air, or Ought --
    Regardless grown,"

    1. In thinking about these poems I wonder how much of her perceptive understandings of grief come from within the Homestead -- and how much from without.