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12 April 2012

How many times these low feet staggered –

How many times these low feet staggered –
Only the soldered mouth can tell
Try – can you stir the awful rivet – 
Try – can you lift the hasps of steel!

Stroke the cool forehead – hot so often – 
Lift – if you care – the listless hair – 
Handle the adamantine fingers
Never a thimble – more – shall wear –

Buzz the dull flies – on the chamber window – 
Brave – shines the sun through the freckled pane – 
Fearless – the cobweb swings from the ceiling – 
Indolent Housewife – in Daisies – lain!
                                                                                                     F238 (1861)  187

This reflection on the death of a housewife is much more intense than the platitudes in earlier poems such as “She died – this is the way she died”  and “Glowing is her bonnet.”  The poem is packed with powerful words, evocative words, that suggest nightmarish scenes: the “low feet” stagger, and here we are reminded of Jesus staggering beneath the weight of the cross; the dead mouth is soldered shut – a harsh image of the implacable silence of the dead; the body is stiff, an “awful rivet” – again the machine imagery as if the body has become an inert rod; the rib cage becomes “hasps of steel.”
This first stanza has no peace or resignation; no hint of womanly virtues. Death has not come like the gentleman caller of a later death poem, “Because I could not stop for death,” or other poems where angels and parades of Saints welcome the newly departed “home.” Instead, some process surely begotten by the Industrial Revolution has brutalized a once soft and living body into something hard and soul-less.
This would be a nice place
for the Housewife
The poet directly addresses the reader: “Try,” she urges, to make the “rivet” move, try to get the ribs moving again as the lungs draw breath. But this is a sardonic urging. It is clear she means that nothing can be moved. She goes on in the second stanza and softens the imagery. The forehead is “cool” where once it burned with fever. This is a very human and not metallic image. The hair is “listless,” because life has left it, too. But she distances herself from the reader when she inserts the “if you care” qualifier in the suggestion that “you” lift the hair. The machine image from the first stanza is still echoing. People wouldn’t care, the poet suggests, to handle the hair or stroke the forehead of a lifeless body. You might as well stroke the head of a rivet. If one cared, one could also pick up the “adamantine” hand. “Adamantine” means as hard and impenetrable as possible. The fingers have turned to stone.
The third stanza is located in the near future. The poet writes as an apostrophe, as if adopting the third-person narrative voice more typical of poetry. We now see the house empty of its housewife. The “dull flies” buzz against the windows. The windows need washing – the sun has to be “brave” to shine though all the freckled dirt. The spiders no longer have to hide: their old webs hang from the ceiling, swaying with every movement of air. This is portraiture through absence. We get a sense of the departed woman by the signs of housewifely neglect that develop. She was not one to have allowed them while she was living.
The last line is deliciously ironic, and here the poet addresses the dead woman directly. “Lazybones,” she might have well said. “Lying around in the daisies when your house is so dirty.” Clearly only death would separate this woman from her dust broom.
Another bit of meaning achieved through absence is the absence of any reference to heaven or the afterlife. The body is now just mechanical detritus and what else there might be is, hopefully, lolling about the flowers taking it easy for a change. Even the bit of teasing at the end of the poem doesn’t erase the sense of almost horror at contemplating the dead body.
In keeping with the heaviness of the imagery Dickinson employs spondees and trochees to reinforce the lifeless weight of the corpse. The poem begins with by showing the dead woman as having been sick, her “low feet staggered.”  The three adjacent accented syllables give a heavy stagger to the line. The repetition of “Try – can you”  draw out the effort. The pattern is echoed in the final stanza with “Buzz the dull flies,” “Brave – shines the sun,” and “Fearless – the cobweb.” It’s not a comforting poem in conventional terms (gone to a better life, etc.), but the last image of the “Indolent Housewife” amid the daisies is quite triumphant in a way: she has triumphed over her daily drudgery and over the “riveting” experience of death.


  1. As I read about the rivet and hasps , I am reminded of a casket.

  2. Whar an interesting and useful website - a revelation in understanding of Dickinson

  3. The description of the housewife could be close to her mother, a woman who was always close to her place in life of domestic chores, and cleaning. This is further confirmed by the poet's rather distant, unflattering feelings for the departed. Was this poem written after her mother became sick?

    1. I don't think her mother was particularly sick. She became bedridden in the 1870s after Edward Dickinson, her husband, died. I think, without checking references, that she did have spells of nerves that laid her up a bit.
      However, I get a feeling that the housewife of the poem is a women from a household not nearly as well off as the Dickinsons. By this time they had a maid, and I can't imagine Mrs. Dickinson working so hard she would be staggered.

  4. I so appreciate your insights as I slowly work my way through ED's poems. My version of this one has it as "Lift, if you CAN, the listless hair". That offers a different cast than "if you CARE" in your commentary above. I'm thinking about the different directions each word pulls us.

    1. You're right -- very different poem with 'can' vs 'care'. Christanne Miller in her 'Emily Dickinson's Poems As She Preserved Them' goes with the chilling 'care'. Where is your version to be found?
      Thank you for sharing this. It draws me in to ED considering the two words and the different directions they send the poem.

  5. “This was one of fourteen poems selected for publication in an article contributed by T. W. Higginson to the Christian Union, XLII (25 September 1890), 393, titled "Requiescat." The text is identical with that in Poems (1890), 120, titled "Troubled About Many Things." One word is altered: 6. care] can”, that is, the Christian Union version read “Lift – if you can – the listless hair – ” (Johnson Work Metadata). To Higginson, the end of that word in ED’s handwriting looked like one letter “n”, not two, “re”.

    The word “can” occurs three times in Stanza 1. To my eye, the fourth word of the line beginning with “Lift” in the handwritten manuscript of ‘How many times’ is identical to those three occurrences of “can”. Both Johnson (1950) and Franklin (1998) disagree and see the word as “care”.

    For comparison, none of the words in ‘How many times’ end in “re”, but ED’s manuscript of the preceding poem, ‘What shall I do’, had two words ending in “re”. Neither of them looks like the fourth word of the line in ‘How many times’ that begins with “Lift”.

    In the handwritten manuscript, the last line of the preceding poem, “Carlo – He’ll tell me” is at the top of the same manuscript page as ‘How many times’, so we know the two poems were copied at the same time.

    The bottom line of this comment is that ED intended “Lift – if you can – the listless hair – ”. She probably felt that four repetitions of the word “can” was poetically more important than rhyming “care” and “hair”. If we think the word should be “care”, we can tell her in the Great Bye and Bye.

    [Correction of publication dates: In comments on several immediately preceding poems, I incorrectly listed the publication date of Johnson’s ‘Emily Dickinson: the Complete Poems’ as 1955. The correct publication date was 1950]

  6. Barbara and Susan point out that changing “care” to “can” in Stanza 2 softens the poem. “If you can” suggests the viewer of the body may love the deceased but lack emotional strength needed to touch her hair, a much more sympathetic message than “if you care”, which seems unlikely from the ED I know.