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20 August 2011

There's something quieter than sleep

There's something quieter than sleep
Within this inner room!
It wears a sprig upon its breast—
And will not tell its name.

Some touch it, and some kiss it—
Some chafe its idle hand—
It has a simple gravity
I do not understand!

I would not weep if I were they—
How rude in one to sob!
Might scare the quiet fairy
Back to her native wood!

While simple-hearted neighbors
Chat of the "Early dead"—
We—prone to periphrasis,
Remark that Birds have fled!
                                                               - F 62 (1859)

Constructed as a puzzle, the poem isn’t hard to figure out. The ‘it’ here is clearly a corpse, a young one at that. Considering how the death of her young nephew devastated Dickinson in later years, this poem takes a remarkably cavalier tone.
In fact, the poet here expresses her sense of superiority over the ‘simple-hearted neighbors’ who fuss over the dead body and talk about how young the departed was. The poet finds their weeping ‘rude’ and has a better way of saying ‘early dead’, i.e., “Birds have fled!”. “Periphrasis” means to say something in a long-winded or roundabout way, so I think that the “We” of the penultimate line refers to poets. Poets see corpses as empty or dead trees whose birds have flown away. Birds traditionally represent the spirit, so the analogy is that the soul has flown from the body. Dickinson calls this figurative speech periphrasis, but it seems more like fun with words—and it seems a bit out of place in a poem about the death of a young person.
The quiet fairy in the room might also be the soul. The sobbing might bring it back to its body, its ‘native wood’, and that would be wrong, presumably. The fairy might also represent the natural forces of the world, and too much sobbing insults the natural flow of things—including death. 


  1. Hi there,

    My name is Benjamin and I am Belgian college student currently working on an essay about this specific Dickinson poem. I have been reading several sources and studies on Dickinson's poetry for several weeks now, coming up a decent and original argument. It was interesting to find your individual take on this poem since it is very rarely included in academic studies about Dickinson.

    For the moment being I am exploring this poem as a sort of existential drama ( an analytic lense I found through an essay by Fred D. White) , where a variety of poetic voices are brought forward to express their reflection on the traumatic death. Furthermore I try to defend the idea that each poetic voice uses its own set of metaphoric imagery.

    The third stanza is a good example. I have interpreted this stanza as a child-like voice that does not grasp the concept of death entirely. The child scolds the adults for weeping, believing it might literally scare a fairy away. This becomes more clear when you consider the belief that fairies were in fact remnants of an unfinished life.

    Going back to the first stanza. This is not just a reflection on the presence of the corpse but also a reflection on the nature of death itself. The 'something' does not only refer to the lifeless body ,the concrete representation of death; but also to the abstract idea of mortality. 'Inner room' could, to me, refer to any human. Death is within all of us and this is what people are confronted with when facing a concrete death, a corpse. The second stanza is, in that sense, a reflection on our ignorance about the ever-present posibility and nearness of our own demise.

    These are among the ideas I explore in my essay. I would love to have a little dialogue about this poem as I come into the final stages of writing.

    I curiously await your response.


    1. Your contention that the poem contains a 'variety of poetic voices' that reflect on a death is interesting. It does seem as if the thoughtful reflection of the first stanza gives way to a more childlike protest beginning with "I do not understand!". The last stanza seems a bracket with the first, employing a more sophisticated diction.

      I also like your insight into the 'inner room' and your comments about the fairy.

      But I wonder about making a sustained argument about the poem belonging in White's categorization of Dickinson's dramatic or 'dramatistic' poems. White lists five elements for such a category: purpose, setting, act, actor, and agency. To me the poem is all about scene/setting and reflection. The agent and agency are mysteries. Instead the poem shows people's response to a dead body: what they do (touch, kiss, chafe its hand) and express (weep, chat, remark) and feel (upset, confused, philosophical).

      I suppose you could say that the poem dramatizes a deathbed scene. An observer watches and judges the other mourners. What conflict exists seems to lie between the quotidian and the philosophic. The 'simple-hearted' discuss the person who died and the sadness of 'early dead' while the speaker (at least in 1st and last stanzas) thinks metaphorically and philosophically. I'm not sure how that plays into an existentialist theme.

      Some poems that this one recalls to me:
      I like a look of Agony (F339)
      We do not play on Graves (F599)

      Btw, you can search this blog for poems: the search box is under the title block.

      Good luck on your paper – I'd be very interested, although sadly I don't read anything but English!

  2. Hi Susan, thanks for the interesting commentary. The poem is striking in its euphemistic tone. Indeed, the whole poem almost seems an exercise in the periphrasis referred to in the penultimate line. Even in the first stanza, rather than representing the macabre reality of death, the poet-speaker does not denote the corpse as a dead body, instead referring to it as 'something'. She subsequently describes it as being in a state 'quieter than sleep' suggesting one of peace and calm, rather than one of morbid inertia or decay. Similarly, the hand of the deceased is described as 'idle' rather than frozenly immobile. Employing a child-like tone, the poet-speaker then likens the young deceased female to a 'quiet fairy' that our sobbing might scare, suggesting a pretty delicacy in death.

    It is ironic that the poet-speaker, an ostensibly gifted individual with superior insight, cannot appear to grasp the 'simple gravity' of death unlike the 'simple-hearted neighbors'. Yet this (pseudo) self-deprecation can ultimately be seen to belie the essence of poetry which 'distills amazing sense from ordinary meanings'. By employing literary and rhetorical devices, the poet enables us to consider emotional states and seemingly 'simple' facts of life in new and, sometimes startling, ways.