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02 January 2012

Where I have lost, I softer tread –

Where I have lost, I softer tread –
I sow sweet flower from garden bed –
I pause above that vanished head
     And mourn.

Whom I have lost, I pious guard
From accent harsh, or ruthless word –
Feeling as if their pillow heard,
     Though stone!

When I have lost, you'll know by this –
A Bonnet black – A dusk surplice –
A little tremor in my voice
     Like this!

Why, I have lost, the people know
Who dressed in frocks of purest snow
Went home a century ago
     Next Bliss!
                                                                            - F 158 (1860)  104

Dickinson here returns to the theme of whether there is any rhyme or reason to life and death. She knows what to do if someone dies, but she’d sure like to understand why they did.
The sibilance of the first stanza reinforces the poet’s “softer tread” near the grave of a departed loved one. The trochees in the second line – “sow sweet flower” – maintain a stately pace in keeping with the mourning. The second stanza has a harsher sound reflecting the poet’s efforts to keep “harsh” or “ruthless” words from being spoken about the beloved dead. “Accent harsh, or ruthless word” in themselves sound harsh. In the third stanza there is “a little tremor” in the fluttering iambs and the alliteration of a “Bonnet black.”  

            The fourth stanza introduces a new idea. In the first three the poet is talking about forms of grieving and how they are noted: flowers and mourning over a grave; defense of the dead one from gossip or ill-will; mourning clothes and getting choked up. But in the fourth, the poet doesn’t have an answer as she had for the Whom, When, and Where of the previous stanzas. This one is the devilish “Why” question: why did he or she have to die? Why now? Why in this manner? Dickinson doesn’t expect a ready answer as the ones who might tell her the answer have been dead for nearly a hundred years.
            Each fourth line is a dimeter that rhymes with the one before it: mourn / stone, and this / Bliss. They work up to the climactic last word, Bliss, which has the effect of implying that all the rest doesn’t matter: not what you wear or how you talk or walk. All that falls away before the contemplation of the “Bliss” that heaven is sure to bring. Oh, but wait! There’s that pesky “why” question. It sort of undermines the idea that pure bliss awaits us all. How blissful can a system be that seems to depend on random deaths? But perhaps I read too  much into this poem.


  1. Thank you so much for your analytical work! <3 I am a student at Amherst College, so I live only about 10 minutes from her house and love to frequent it. It's so wonderful, and almost magical, how well you will know Emily by the end of your journey. Because she seemed to really communicate best through writing, you might as well be one of her greatest pen pals (across time!) hehe. <3

    1. I love it! Thanks! and best wishes for your studies in beautiful Amherst.

  2. In the second line of the fourth stanza “flocks” should be “frocks”, I think.

  3. Thanks for the excellent analysis! I wonder if you have any insight into the second and third lines in the 4th stanza. Why “ white frocks” and a “century ago”? Is she referring to a specific set of people who passed on and now know that the reason to be “Next Bliss”

    1. It is puzzling. I take it the white frocks to indicate the 'saints' -- good Christians who live in heaven. They would know the reasons. But they are not available to ask. But the poem ends when Dickinson says that to go to heaven is to go home -- and then, next, is Bliss.

      I agree this is not entirely convincing.

  4. Though ED often used ambiguous and idiosyncratic punctuation, she was careful how she used it. In her ink copy of this manuscript, the comma after “Why” in Stanza 4 is clearly deliberate, not a mistake and not a question. She did not use commas in Stanzas 1-3 with “Where”, “Whom”, and “When”. The comma signals that “Why” is a parenthetical word, as in “Why, I have lost my way.”

    My interpretation is that Stanza 4 tells us “Why, I have lost …. next Bliss!”. Witnesses of her loss are “… the people …… / Who[,] dressed in frocks of purest snow[,] / Went home a century ago”. She states her loss as a fact, which comports with what she told us in the previous poem, ‘I have a King, who does not speak’ (F157), and many other poems. In fact, she tells us four times, “I have lost”.

    My translation of Stanza 4 may sound weird, but I’m in good company, ED.