It's Somewhat in the Cold —
And somewhat in the Trudging feet —
And haply, in the World —
The Cruel — smiling — bowing World —
That took its Cambric Way —
Nor heard the timid cry for "Bread" —
"Sweet Lady — Charity" —
Among Redeemed Children
If Trudging feet may stand
The Barefoot time forgotten — so —
The Sleet — the bitter Wind —
The Childish Hands that teased for Pence
Lifted adoring — them —
To Him whom never Ragged — Coat
Did supplicate in vain —
F496 (1862) J717
Dickinson had books by Charles Dickens and at least one book about William Blake in her personal library. Both authors wrote famous works about poor, starving children. Perhaps Dickinson was reading Oliver Twist or thinking about Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper." I vote for the latter, for there is a hint of Blake's caustic irony in this poem. Well, there is if you look at the poem just right.
On a quick read we see how a "Beggar Lad" dies from cold and exhaustion, ignored by passersby. Dickinson economically conveys a callous upper class with its fine clothing through the phrase "Cambric Way." After death, such beggar children lift their "adoring" hands to Jesus – who reputedly answers the supplications of the poor (those in "Ragged – Coat"). Their earthly suffering, the "Barefoot time" and the "bitter Wind," are forgotten.
Except that this rather saccharine ending is at odds with previous Dickinson poems that rail against salvation and grace coming too late, or the incomprehensible suffering of children beneath the gaze of a savior who promised to care for them.
|Children of wealth showing charity
In "Some, too fragile for winter winds" (F91), Dickinson suggests that despite Jesus' assertion in the bible that even sparrows are not forgotten by God and people are even more precious, there are graves full of "children / Early aged, and often cold, / Sparrow, unnoticed by the Father – / Lambs for whom time had not a fold." In F195, "Victory comes late," the poet rather scathingly wonders why God's "Table" is “spread too high” so that we have to “dine on tiptoe” as if God is not a particularly loving father. In addition, what we receive is often too little or else too late. In "He told a homely tale" (F486), Dickinson describes a homeless orphan and implies that it is she who "ransomed it – alive," and that both heaven and earth, both early and heavenly father, had failed the boy.
With that undercurrent of bitterness against the unfairness of suffering in this world, I'm tempted to read the last two lines of this poem ironically. Perhaps Dickinson means us to consider whether or not ragged-coated children ever do raise their supplicating hands in vain, and she is implying that they certainly do.
I must admit, though, I am reaching a bit with this interpretation. It is likely that Dickinson penned this from sincere sentimentality (common among Victorian authors) – and hope that the next life will be a better one for the suffering children.