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22 September 2011

Some, too fragile for winter winds

Some, too fragile for winter winds
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.


  1. A farthing is a quarter of a penny in the old English money, related to the word “fourth”.

  2. I think so this poem tells about those kids who died at an early age but sparrow and lamb also showcase the Christian belief somehow I think so Emily was asking the question through the poem to god how could you ignore the Sparrow and lambs and even Your son for being sacrificed because you are the lord you can each and everything for saving your own kids life and another side of this is very sorrowful it might be possible that in this poem she mourned for Jesus to not got the warmness of the grave. This is my opinion according to Christianity belief.

  3. ‘Some, too fragile for winter winds’, F91, continues ED’s theme of doubt about God’s benevolence, which she also expressed in F84, ‘On such a night, or such a night, and F85, ‘Whose are the little beds, I asked’. Given 19th century fundamentalism in western Massachusetts and her family’s prominence in Amherst society, ED relied on ambiguity to avoid alienating parents, brother Austin, and possibly future poetry fans. These comments on F84, F85, & F91 express my admiration for ED’s courage and honesty.

    F84….. The closing lines leave me feeling depressed. What kind of God would doom a little girl to such pointless existence? Maybe that’s what ED wanted me to feel; maybe that’s what ED felt after watching too many children die.

    F85….. Why doesn’t an omniscient God know who’s sleeping in those small beds? ….. Apparently, ED thinks a loving God would not let those children die so pointlessly. Perhaps that’s why God doesn’t know who’s sleeping in those “little beds”; He doesn’t care.

    F91 ….. To understand ‘Some, too fragile for winter winds’, it’s helpful to know that (1) the west window of ED’s 2nd-floor bedroom/office overlooked Amherst’s West Cemetery, giving her a balcony seat for every funeral. ED and Carlo, her Newfoundland bodyguard and gift from her father, took frequent walks together that must have included West Cemetery. And (2), the ED Lexicon defines “covert” as “shelter; sanctuary; asylum; safe place; protected location” and “fold” as “sheltered group; haven” (

    Stanzas 1 and 2 reassure us that the graveyard provides safe haven for those too weak to survive vicissitudes of life, whether disease or winter wind, and where schoolboys and sportsmen will not disturb their sleep. Then things turn dark.

    Stanza 3 starkly asserts that many children sleep in this “covert”, some very young and often “cold” (poor). Metaphorically, they are sparrows unnoticed by God, lambs too young to know their “fold” (families). Contrary to Matthew 10:27-31 and Luke 12:6, their Father has forgotten them.

  4. To me it looks like Emily is identifying with the dead children and tries to find some comfort in her fantasy about a cozy grave. She herself is fragile, oversensitive, her suffering is “unnoticed by the Father”. In F570 she sees herself as a creature of heavenly love forgot. Susan K. writes „Dickinson doesn’t seem convinced of the Bible tales’ applicability to actual children.“ I would say ED is not convinced that the tales apply to her.