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17 September 2011

Whose are the little beds, I asked

Whose are the little beds, I asked
Which in the valleys lie?
Some shook their heads, and others smiled—
And no one made reply.

Perhaps they did not hear, I said,
I will inquire again—
Whose are the beds—the tiny beds
So thick upon the plain?

'Tis Daisy, in the shortest—
A little further on—
Nearest the door—to wake the Ist—
Little Leontoden.

'Tis Iris, Sir, and Aster—
Anemone, and Bell—
Bartsia, in the blanket red—
And chubby Daffodil.

Meanwhile, at many cradles
Her busy foot she plied—
Humming the quaintest lullaby
That ever rocked a child.

Hush! Epigea wakens!
The Crocus stirs her lids—
Rhodora's cheek is crimson,
She's dreaming of the woods!

Then turning from them reverent—
Their bedtime 'tis, she said—
The Bumble bees will wake them
When April woods are red.
                                                                     - F85 (1859)  142

Red Bartsia, John Johnston
This lovely poem takes us to the slumbering winter garden and woods. Who knows which flowers lie in which bed? Who remembers where the anemone is, or the daffodil? (I love the ‘chubby Daffodil’.)  The poet, strolling about the woods and town, meets only with coy demurrals when asking this question. But, persistent, she asks again and this time Mother Nature herself speaks up. She is portrayed as a Mother indeed: she is rocking the many cradles of the baby and slumbering plants and humming lullabies for them. She admonishes the poet to be quiet but indulges her by giving her a tour: look, Daisy is closest, there is Leontoden (dandelion), etc.  And finally, she tells the poet that this is the flowers’ bedtime until Spring when the “Bumble bees will wake them”.
Epigaea (arbutus)
            The poem is quite regular in structure and meter and rhyme. And perhaps it isn’t the deepest poem in the world; nonetheless, it brings a smile to my face!


  1. It’s pretty obvious that ED’s female speaker of the last four stanzas is Mother Nature, but whom does she address as “Sir” in the first line of those stanzas? There seems no reason for ED to disguise the speaker by switching gender from female to male, as she sometimes does in personal poems to Susan. It’s also hard to imagine Mother Nature feeling obligated to address a mortal male as Sir, nor has ED mentioned a male speaker in the first two stanzas.

    That leaves one reasonable suspect, God. It’s God who asks bystanders, “Whose are the beds—the tiny beds / So thick upon the plain?”, but He gets no answer. A little peeved but keeping cool, God hides His irritation, “Perhaps they did not hear, / I will inquire again—". ED wasn’t Christian but neither was she atheist or rude. After an embarrassing silence, ED has Mother Nature speak up, naming the sleepers for God and telling Him it’s their bedtime, but She reassures Him that they will wake in spring when April woods are red.

  2. Why doesn’t an omniscient God know who’s sleeping in those small beds? The previous poem (F84, On such a night) asks, “Would anybody care / If such a little figure / Slipped quiet from its chair” and died during the night? The previous poem continues, “There was a little figure plump / For every little knoll—“, each with unimagined “visions, vast and small”. It ends, “Strange that the feet so precious charged / Should reach so small a goal!” Apparently, ED thinks it strange that a loving, omniscient God would let these children die so pointlessly. Perhaps that’s why God doesn’t know who’s sleeping in those “little beds”; He doesn’t care.

    Why doesn’t God get answers when he asks twice ‘Whose are the little beds’? Some geography might help. ED’s bedroom/office had two windows, one facing south and one west. Out her west window she could watch funerals in Amherst’s West Cemetery, site of her own burial in 1886. In ‘Whose are the little beds”, her garden’s perennial beds may be metaphors for children’s graves in West Cemetery. Perhaps God doesn’t get answers to his questions because his adult listeners are dead, mouldering in their graves. ED, who wasn't Christian, had watched carefully at many burials and never seen any evidence of souls rising from the grave.

  3. The proximity to the cemetery and the link to the last poem “on such a night” make understanding this poem more complete. Then with alternate reading the April points to resurrection.
    I am not sure why she refers to beds “in the valley” if she is describing winter in the town or village gardens.

  4. The first two stanzas always make me think of the headstones of infants, which can be painfully numerous in old cemeteries, and are often marked without names. The bit about people shaking their heads and making no reply reminds me how silent people can be about such profound losses as the deaths of children. And I think Emily uses that imagery to leverage, perhaps within herself, some counter-notions of life or immortality, turning the beds of the deceased into beds of flowers, incidentally beginning with daisies, which she associates with the grave elsewhere too. So I think it is deeper than a first read suggests, and perhaps her indulgence in naming the flowers reflects the natural tendency to fixate on our preoccupations in order to remain functional in the wake of profound grief.

    1. Yes, I think we are meant to think of graves (and deaths) of children -- which I must have not noticed when writing before. But the flowers are 'real' flowers, too, I think. The association of the quiet, dead children with the sleeping flowers is a rich one. We feel all are in good hands with Mother Earth.