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01 December 2011

She died at play

She died at play –
Gambolled away
Her lease of spotted hours,
Then sank as gaily as a Turk
Upon a Couch of flowers –

Her ghost strolled softly o'er the hill –
Yesterday, and Today –
Her vestments as the silver fleece—
Her countenance as spray –

                                                                                  - F141 (1860)  75

Imagine a cloudy sky, sunlight pouring through the gaps in the clouds. Might that not be like “spotted hours”? The poem is written as two contrasting riddles and the reader must figure it all out. My best guess is that the first stanza describes the sun. She plays during the day, a summer’s day anyway as there are flowers and the scene is one conducive to play. She has only a certain amount of time – maybe fourteen or fifteen hours – and then she must sleep. But this playful creature isn’t going to sulk; instead she sinks behind the horizon as “gaily” as a child taking a nap on a “Couch of flowers.” With that final image we are meant to imagine the sunset lighting up the garden. The mood is all light and airy and cheerful.
            The “ghost” of the sun would be the moon dressed in her silvery “fleece and strolling over the hill as night falls. The face of the moon is like spray in that the radiating lines from asteroid impacts can be seen – and also in that the silver shimmers like spray from the sea.
Painting by Kamila

            The first two lines are structurally really one line but Dickinson breaks them up to emphasize the rhyme. It has a nursery-rhyme feel to it in keeping with the idea of a small child at play. The words are quick, too, with their slightly syncopated rhythm.  In contrast, the first line of the second stanza is slow: the two adjacent long “o”s of “ghost” and “strolled” along with the sibilance of the “s” sounds in “ghost,” “strolled,” and “softly” all contribute to a moonlight stroll mood.