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12 October 2011

In rags mysterious as these

In rags mysterious as these
The shining Courtiers go—
Veiling the purple, and the plumes—
Veiling the ermine so.

Smiling, as they request an alms—
At some imposing door!
Smiling when we walk barefoot
Upon their golden floor!
                                                                                    - F 102 (1859)  117

Swallow family
A puzzle poem – and this one is really a puzzler! Contender #1: Dickinson is sketching a swallow, the sort that make their nests in the eaves. They are much like shining Courtiers with purple feathers and a white, ermine, breast. The babies open their mouths wide in a big smile, waiting for some nice bug to get plopped in, or at least a regurgitated bug. And why wouldn’t they smile when someone walks barefoot on the porch (golden-hued wood, I’m thinking) that is probably mined with bird doo. There are a few problems with the idea of swallows, particularly the first and last lines. The first isn’t so bad – feathers really are mysterious. But the “golden floor” is difficult… .
            Contender #2: Angels. Angels walk among us, hiding their shining glory, their purple gowns (!) and wings in mysterious rags. They come to the houses of the well-to-do and ask for alms, and ask nicely. But then, there comes a time, hopefully, that we are now the ones seeking shelter and reprieve. Walking “barefoot” on heaven’s golden floor (or its "streets paved with gold") we depend on grace – and hope that the angels will smile at us.
            Although at first I was pretty convinced the poem was about swallows, after working it out here I think it is more likely to be angels. Anyone else have a good idea? Hop right in!
angels on their "golden floor"
            In keeping with the angelic theme, the poem is written in hymn form: alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines. The first stanza sets up the mystery of the veiled Courtiers. The second uses the verb “Smiling” to turn the poem from a focus on the mysterious Courtiers to our own fate. It’s a very effective way to close the poem, suggesting angel benevolence, the humility of the newly-arrived soul, and the magnificence of Heaven. 


  1. A puzzle indeed! Massachusetts does have two types of swallows, but if I must choose I go for the second contender over the first, given the last two lines. But what sticks out, making this poem all the more a puzzle is the "Veiling in purple (death??), and the plumes - veiling the ermine so" ??? Sounds like a riddle from Turandot.

    1. I'm guessing the angels are wearing rags as they go among the people. The rags veil their royal purple and royal ermine, and the plumes -- ostrich, probably; another signifier.

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  3. Do you think maybe they are angels disguised as beggars on earth, then the tables turn and they become the heavenly hosts. I am so appreciating your blog, thank you for publishing it.

  4. The last two stanzas of F81, ‘She bore it till the simple veins’, hint at the identity of F102’s “shining Courtiers” dressed in rags. In F81, ED imagined herself as an old woman in Amherst who has recently died:
    No more her patient figure
    At twilight soft to meet—
    No more her timid bonnet
    Upon the village street—

    But Crowns instead, and Courtiers—
    And in the midst so fair,
    Whose but her shy—immortal face
    Of whom we're whispering here?

    Summer evenings, when ED was old and grey, she would shuffle softly down village streets in her timid bonnet, wondering whether passers-by thought of her as shy. They would whispered behind her back, but ED believed that after her death, her shy face would be immortal for poetry fans like us.

    In F102, the “shining Courtiers dressed in rags” probably are angels from Heaven, as in F81. ED believed that they, and countless generations of poetry fans, would be smiling as she “walks barefoot upon the golden floor” of Heaven.