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26 January 2013

She lay as if at play

She lay as if at play
Her life had leaped away—
Intending to return—
But not so soon—

Her merry Arms, half dropt—
As if for lull of sport—
An instant had forgot—
The Trick to start—

Her dancing Eyes—ajar—
As if their Owner were
Still sparkling through
For fun—at you—

Her Morning at the door—
Devising, I am sure—
To force her sleep—
So light—so deep—

                                                       F412 (1862)  J369

Dickinson takes a break here from the weighty topics of previous poems to return to the theme of what death looks like on the face of the recently deceased. The subject here is a young girl (I think three or four earlier poems had a dead girl child in them, too). Ladies of Dickinson's day often wrote these sad child-death poems, and they were avidly consumed by readers. This one is a bit heart wrenching because Dickinson sketches a lively child with "sparkling" and "dancing" eyes who seems to have died without much warning. Her life "had leaped away" as if just jumping up to get something. 
unlabeled photo from the Aray family album
Dead children were often posed and photographed as if
     they were only sleeping
          Less clear to me is what the poet means by "Her Morning at the door." I think Dickinson intends the homophone of Morning and Mourning; I think she also means the re-birth connotations of morning. But this particular earthly morning, the child was not awakened by the sun or by her mother. This particular morning took great pains to make sure the child would never wake again in her little bed. There's an ominous quality to a morning that was "Devising" the sleep of death and how to "force" the child into it. The reader pauses a bit at the line, but "Morning" seems so innocuous that how many of us really think it had such deadly intent? I think Dickinson was intending this irony.
          Except for the last line of each quatrain, Dickinson uses iambic trimeter throughout. Each quatrain is divided into two rhyming lines. The simple scheme lends a childish quality to the poem. The last lines of the stanzas are in dimeter; each word is only one syllable. These lines are neatly divided by both meter and sense: one reads them as pairs: "But not : so soon"; "The Trick : to start"; "For fun — : at you"; "So light — : so deep." The effect is disruptive — just as the child's sudden death was disruptive. The last pair with its "light" and "deep" is a thoughtful pairing that asks the reader to think about a child's death sleep — at least this child's. Her "sleep" looked so light, but went so deep. One also hopes that the experience from the child's perspective was the same: so light — so deep.


  1. I find this a chilling poem. The illusion of the dead eyes still sparkling through for fun --- at you. I can imagine the horror of it.

    I'm not sure what to make out of the last lines either. In my first reading though it was Her, the dead, who spent her "morning", or the first part of her life, devising how to force herself into a good sleep, or good death. This child, who still looks so alive in death is a reminder that we must best devise how to force (discipline) the way we live our lives toward a good and peaceful death. That's what we are to spend the morning of our life doing.

    On the other hand, any time Emily says "I am sure", I tend to want to read it as sarcastic. The child wasn't thinking about forcing death at all in the morning playtime before the door of death. She was just...playing.

    That reading is quite the opposite of forceful devising. It's not in discipline, but in playing that we enter into such a light and deep death. Maybe in the end it's both. I think of those children striving in the ring in "Because I could not stop for death".

    The second reading seems stronger though, the one emphasizing play. "She lay as if at play" It is as if Emily's eyes were the ones sparkling through from the other side for fun --- at US!

    As cold as this poem seems to be, at first, at the end we are left with what I would consider to be a good sleep, one that is paradoxically both light and deep.

  2. "Dickinson takes a break here from the weighty topics of previous poems to return to the theme of what death looks like on the face of the recently deceased."

    Humor noir?

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  4. "The subject here is a young girl (I think three or four earlier poems had a dead girl child in them, too)." SK

    Wanted, Dead or Alive, little girl poems (Pre-F412)
    Here are 10 maybes:

    34.1858. Taken from men - this morning
    43.1858. Through lane it lay
    48.1859. Whose cheek is this
    125.1859. A poor—torn heart—a tattered heart
    154.1860. She died – this was the way she died
    211.1861. I've heard an Organ talk, sometimes –
    231.1861. We don't cry – Tim and I
    344.1862. 'Twas just this time, last year, I died
    394.1862. I cried at Pity—not at Pain—
    412.1862. She lay as if at play