The thoughtful grave encloses—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold –
Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look,
And sportsman is not bold.
This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,
Sparrow, unnoticed by the Father—
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.
- F 91 (1859) 141
Most people raised in a predominantly Christian environment will remember Jesus reassuring his disciples about God’s love: “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. ... Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows." (Matt. 10:27-31). Luke presents this version: "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?" (Luke 12:6). A copper coin, or ‘farthing’, was a very small Roman coin worth less than a U.S. quarter. What we are to take from this is that God loves his creation so much that even a lowly sparrow is noted and observed; no sparrow ‘falls’ unless it is God’s will.
With all this in mind, Dickinson’s poem is rather shocking. Most of the poem is a rather conventional portrayal of a cosy grave—except that here the grave is like a tender and thoughtful mother. She tucks the little children in, making sure they are warm, as many of them died as a result of ‘winter winds’ and were ‘often cold’. In the second stanza the human mother image becomes a bird mother who protects the babies in her nest from pesky schoolboys and hunters. And it’s a good thing the grave is so tender and caring because ‘the Father’, despite what Jesus said, did not even notice these little sparrows!
The death of children is hard to conceive within the auspices of an all-powerful, all-loving God, and Dickinson doesn’t try to justify it here. Instead she writes a tear-jerker poem. I find the last line particularly poignant: the little lambs did not live to find their home, their ‘fold’ over the course of a life. Again, this goes contrary to the familiar image of Jesus out hunting for the little lost lamb. Of course, Jesus was himself the ‘lamb of God’ as he was the blood sacrifice for the sins of humanity. But we won’t try to work that bit of theology into the poem. It’s enough to notice that Dickinson doesn’t seem convinced of the Bible tales’ applicability to actual children.
|How Jesus is often portrayed. |
Dickinson wasn't buying it.
Art by Penny Parker
Poetically, the poem coheres with rhymes of ‘cold’, ‘bold’, ‘cold’, and ‘fold’ running through. It begins with a grave spondee – “Some, too” – followed by a trochee to further emphasize the seriousness of the subject. The trochee to iamb pattern gives an anapestic feel to the third lines as well as the first line of the first two stanzas.