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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.

    1. I missed this insightful comment when it was posted a couple of years ago. You make many good points. I particularly like your comments about the irony. It makes sense of the rather disparate verbiage and tones.

  3. Hi Susan,

    Can it be possible that the "inner room" is the metaphoric reference to "the grave"? I take it that way. Dickinson has quite a number of poems about the grave, the graveyard... Also, I am a Vietnamese student, interpreting that from the perspective of a distant and strange culture from yours and Dickinson's. What do you think about my interpretation? Please let me know. Thank you very much.


    1. I think that because people are touching the corpse -- kissing it, chafing its hand, etc. -- and otherwise seemingly reacting to the body, that the body is not yet in the grave but simply in an open coffin for viewing. So the 'inner room' might refer to the coffin, or it might simply refer to the viewing room inside the dead person's house.
      Thanks for your comment and question -- I enjoyed re-reading this poem.

  4. ED was an amazing poet, but she began life adopting her father’s sense of entitlement in Amherst society, especially toward African-American and Irish laborers who were hired to keep house, tend gardens, and maintain the stable for the family. Her opinion about the Irish gradually softened in the last half of her life, and near its end she instructed that all six of her pallbearers would be Irish laborers at her home. However, the tone of “There's something quieter than sleep”, written in 1859 when she was 29, reflects of those early prejudices, which were also present in her letters to family and friends. For example:

    • (Letter 43, to Austin Dickinson who was teaching at a boys’ school in a nearby town) “Vinnie and I say masses for poor Irish boys souls. So far as I am concerned I should like to have you kill some - there are so many now, there is no room for the Americans”,
    • (Letter 128 to Austin D.).”Our house is crowded daily with the members of this world, the high and the low, the bond and the free, the “poor in this world's goods”, and “the almighty dollar”, and "what in the world are they after" continues to be unknown - But I hope they will pass away, as insects on vegetation, and let us reap together in golden harvest time - that is you and Susie and me and our dear sister Vinnie must have a pleasant time to be unmolested together, when your school days end”.
    • (Letter 195 to Mrs. J.G. Holland, about 6 November 1858) ……”I buried my garden last week - our man, Dick lost a little girl through the scarlet fever [eight-year-old Harriet Matthews, daughter of the Dickinsons’ stable keeper]. ..… “Ah! dainty - dainty Death! Ah! democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden, - then deep to his bosom calling the serf's child!”
    • (Letter 342 to Thomas W. Higginson)."How do most people live without any thoughts. There are many people in the world (you must have noticed them in the street) How do they live. How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?",

    ED’s repeated reference to a little girl’s corpse as “it” in this poem reveals her real feelings about what’s in the coffin. “It” has a sprig of rosemary pinned on “its” shirt and refuses to tell “its” name. Some people fondle and kiss “it”, (but not ED!). “It” has an unremarkable appearance that reveals nothing, and “they” should stop their weeping and wailing because it’s “rude” of them to make such a big deal about their grief. They might even scare the spirit of the corpse as it tries to go to heaven (wink, wink). These simple-minded people prattle on about the short life of the child, but we poets exhibit our superior class by chatting metaphorically about birds fleeing.

    1. that's interesting!!

    2. That IS an interesting take.
      But I think it’s a bit of a stretch. I’m sure she had her prejudices, but if people were to read MY private letters to my brother (the more exaggerated, the more funny) they might also take them the wrong way.

      In the poem, that she’s making fun of a poor dead girl does not fit for me. She’s talking about inside herself. She’s likening it to a death because that’s what the neighbors see. They see her as idle, as not living life. But she has this mysterious fairy-like spirit in her and she feels like it has helped her escape the strivings of the simple-hearted.

      The funniest thing I read about ED is that her siblings would complain about her letters to them: Emily, we have no idea what you’re talking about! Would you just say it simple, please!

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  7. I read this as a critique (perhaps partially a self-critique) of the poetic sensibility which, rather than delving deep and finding insight, instead merely resorts to flowery metaphors and fine language, too circumspect and oblique by half. It can speak of birds and fairies, but fails to grasp fundamentals like the simple gravity of death and the sobs of grieving parents.

    Perhaps ED wrote this as a reminder to herself that when dealing with the poetry of death to never become too self-impressed with precious metaphors and periphrasis at the expense of its true simple elemental power. And perhaps--I'm conjecturing here--it was precisely by using this self-warning as a guiding principle that she was able to delve so profoundly into the subject of death in her collected poetry.