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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.


  1. I think Turn in ln 4 should be Turk.

  2. Steiner (1981) proposed that ED wore one of six different masks while composing poems: “(1) the Mask of the Believer, Doubter, and Loser; (2) the Mask of the Female Wooer; (3) the Mask of the Seer and Singer; (4) the Mask of the Protesting Female; (5) the Pseudo-male Mask, and (6) the Mask of the Girlish Clown or Eccentric”. In ‘She died at play’ (F141), ED wore Mask 6, “the little girl with a face of childish simplicity and naivete, joy and lightheartedness, which makes her a sister of nature's creatures. Her death is a playful death, where the central images are "gambolled," "gaily," and "Couch of flowers"”. Another example of ED’s use of Mask 6 is ‘She lay as if in play’ (F412, 1862).

    Both Steiner’s interpretation of “She” as a little girl and Kornfeld/Preest’s interpretation of “She” as the Sun and Moon appeal to me. Why can’t we credit ED with genius and say she intended both interpretations, depending on the reader’s mood?

    Steiner, Dorothea. 1981. Emily Dickinson: Image Patterns and the Female Imagination. Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 6(1): 57-71.

  3. Frances, my wife, suggests that this is something of a self-portrait, in which Dickinson may be comparing herself to the passage of sun or moon, as Susan suggests. That idea also works if she is comparing herself to a spring shower. The point being that Dickinson correctly sees herself as somewhat ephermeral, playful, and (just when you think you might have understood her) like a “spray”—ineffable, ephermeral, here and then not here.

    1. Oh, I can see it! Two sketches of herself, rather romantic, what with the couch of flowers and the play - and then the moonish afterlife she enjoys through the touch of her poems. Thank you, Frances.