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14 July 2012

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood –
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –

It scatters like the Birds –
Condenses like a Flock –
Like Juggler’s Figures situates
Upon a baseless Arc –

It traverses yet halts –
Disperses as it stays –
Then curls itself in Capricorn –
Denying that it was –
                                                            F291 (1862)  311

I have been reading lately that figurative language such as similes is old fashioned. Today we go for the straightforward, the direct. Metaphors have also been maligned as overly colorful. Bah. Eliminate figurative language and toss out Shakespeare, the King James, all the famous orators, Greek poets and playwrights, any poets actually, and any scientist or mathematician worth her salt. How else do we understand gravity, for example, without a physicist patiently explaining how it is like a rubber sheet that a bowling ball can distort, dragging other smaller balls towards its warp.
            And so I like the idea of snow as flour sifting from the “Leaden Sieves” that are a wintry sky. I like it as talcum powder touching up the chilly woods, or as white wool smoothed into the rough patches of the road.
Peace after the storm
                        The second stanza compares snow to active figures: imagine a flock of birds in a tree. When startled they scatter in all directions yet then gather again in the air to fly as a flock. The snow will scatter in a breeze but then fall, condensed, in drifts and mounds. But then the poem takes an ominous turn with the image of the “Juggler’s Figures.” We imagine a Juggler blowing and storming snow over the earth just as we are blown and scattered by unknown forces. There is no known “Arc” to this juggling. It is random, unpredictable.
            The unpredictability is carried into the final stanza. The snow travels only to stop. Scatters only to remain. At last the storm “curls itself in Capricorn”—and “Capricorn” here refers to the constellation visible in the northern hemisphere during winter, suggesting the storm innocently curling itself up into its own heavenly resting place as if nothing had ever happened. It’s an interesting movement from a lovely landscape of snow to a metaphor for storm-tossed lives.

Dickinson wrote a longer version of this poem a year or two earlier that has more landscape and less angst. The first stanza is the same but then it completely changes. Speaking of an aversion to figurative language and overly colorful metaphors, I have a hard time visualizing snow as both ruffling the “Wrists of Posts” and the “Ankles of a Queen.” Each by itself is lovely and sufficient. Together we have ruffly snow on wooden wrists and aristocratic ankles. I do, however, like the vision that sees a snow-veiled pastoral field as “Summer’s empty Room.”

Former version:
It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –

It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain –
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again –

It reaches to the Fence –
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces –
It deals Celestial Vail

To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
A Summer's empty Room –
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them–

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen –
Then stills its Artisans – like Ghosts –
Denying they have been –


  1. Thank you for placing this poem and many other in context to her other poems and her life; I rely on your commentary daily as I work my way through Em's collected.

  2. For ED, this poem must have been important; there are five surviving variants, more than any previous poem in Franklin’s chronological list:

    [Variant A, 20 lines, above] The earliest was signed "Emily" and sent to Susan Dickinson “about late 1862”.

    [Variant B, 20 lines, “ancles” misspelled], “About spring 1863”, she transcribed it into Fascicle 24.

    [Variant C, 12 lines, above] About 1865 ED reduced the text to twelve lines.

    [Variant D, 12 lines, one variant] About 1871 the shortened version was sent to T. W. Higginson.

    [Variant E, 12 lines, several variant] About March 1883 ED sent a copy to Thomas Niles, editor of Roberts Brothers, referring to it as "the Snow”, but without permission to publish.

  3. Snow is an important word/metaphor for ED. The BYU Emily Dickinson Lexicon lists 14 categories of definitions with 100+ total definitions for “snow”. Of the 14 categories, 6 relate to cold/death/winter and 8 relate to white/innocence/virginity (

    Susan K's bottom line: "It’s an interesting movement from a lovely landscape of snow to a metaphor for storm-tossed lives." To borrow one of her favorite pedagogies, "Could you (we) elaborate?"

    One truism about ED's poetry: Never underestimate depth of lovely snow, especially with five variants over 20 years.

  4. As often happens, I feel most synched with ED when I focus on Variant A of a poem. After that variant, new words obscure first instincts, hide native genius. Here’s an interpretation of Variant A.

    ED’s puzzle-poem to Sue begins with a referenceless pronoun, “It”. She quickly drops qualifier clues that clarify - “It” is a snowstorm, a force that creates and shapes snow.

    A snowstorm smooths mountains and plains, clean foreheads east, around compass, and back to east again.

    Snow fills fenced fields from ground to rail, then rises, rail to rail, until posts vanish under fleece, hidden by a celestial veil.

    From stumps to haystacks and standing stems, snow hides summer fields fence to fence, joins other fields, forms acres of jointed fields where hay was harvested, records defined in snow.

    The storm sews ruffles on the posts, as if ankles of a queen, then stills its artisans, like ghosts, denying their existence with deathly silence. Nothing ever happened here.

  5. In addition to its many other qualities, freshly fallen snow absorbs sound incredibly well. Take a hike in snow after wind subsides and silence reigns. When ED copied Sue’s Variant A for her fascicle (Variant B), she considered replacing “Artisans” with “Myrmidons”, who, in Homer's Iliad, were members of a warlike people inhabiting ancient Thessaly, who Achilles led to the siege of Troy (OED). Their claim to fame was a willingness to die following orders.

    Artisans or Myrmidons, in Stanza 5 ED’s “It” reveals a commander’s role, no longer solo artist but master-artist with subservient artisans. Does ED imply the storm is God, commander of minions who create a wonderland of snow, then vanish into silence, or Capricorn, seeming to deny their and God’s existence? If so, she describes Deism’s Watchmaker Analogy, that God created the universe like a master watchmaker creates a perfect watch, its marvelous moving parts proving God’s existence, even if God is now silent.