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18 November 2015

The Night was wide, and furnished scant

The Night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single Star —
That often as a Cloud it met —
Blew out itself — for fear —

The Wind pursued the little Bush —
And drove away the Leaves
November left — then clambered up
And fretted in the Eaves —

No Squirrel went abroad —
A Dog's belated feet
Like intermittent Plush, be heard
Adown the empty street —

To feel if Blinds be fast —
And closer to the fire —
Her little Rocking Chair to draw —
And shiver for the Poor —

The Housewife's gentle Task —
How pleasanter — said she
Unto the Sofa opposite —
The Sleet — than May, no Thee —
                                             F617 (1863)  J589

I like this snug little winter poem with it simple message. One of life's pleasures is drawing up by the fire with a loved one while outside the winter's night is cold and windy.

The first two stanzas are in ballad form: alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter. They also read like a ballad, Dickinson establishing a very atmospheric scene. The few stars that can be seen disappear quickly under the clouds. Down below the wind shakes the bushes and scatters the leaves. It is so cold that the remnant warmth of November goes for shelter up under the eaves.
        Dickinson adjusts the meter in the following two stanzas to be iambic trimeter, the third line in iambic tetrameter. It gives the poem a more abrupt tone but also highlights the longer line – which in both stanzas is softer and gentler, the plush of the dog, the dip of the rocking chair.
  I am not one of those folks who dislikes anthropomorphism. I like it when Dickinson has the natural world acting out of emotion or described in human terms. It is a bracing opposite of the deep abstraction she can employ – sometimes in the same poem. In this one she has a timid little star, so timid it blows itself out when faced with a cloud. She has a fierce wind harrassing bushes and leaves and even driving November away.
        Another thing people cherish about Dickinson is her ability to drop a killer phrase into a line. Here we have the deserted street: no one is abroad, not even squirrels. But there is a 'belated' dog whose feet pad along like "intermittent Plush". Lovely! The tactile sense of 'plush' is transformed into an aural sense.

The last two stanzas bring us inside. The Housewife checks the window dressings then draws her rocking chair close to the fire, giving a sympathetic shiver for the Poor who might not have a warm and cozy room. All this is summarized as her "gentle Task", for in spring and summer she is no doubt doing much harder work. Or perhaps Dickinson is ironically suggesting that to shiver for the poor while next to the fire is an easy thing.
        The poem ends with the housewife talking to the sofa across from her. We must assume that the sofa has an occupant, probably the husband. "The Sleet is pleasanter," she tells him, "than May without Thee."  Dickinson may be projecting an alternate self into this poem, one where she had not chosen the 'Belt around [her] life' of the truth-saying poet's life. Either way, it is a lovely and loving poem.


  1. I wonder if that sofa could be empty; I was left with that feeling. May might be harder to take with the husband gone than the present sleety conditions are without him, as in "I dreaded that first Robin so," or "The Morning after Woe," where nature parades her joys before her victim ...

    1. You know, when I first read it I thought Dickinson was making a bit of a dig at the husband as if he were simply an upholstered presence that together with the rocking chair made the fireside ambiance complete. If this is so, referring to him as "sofa" is certainly kinder than 'couch potato'.

      I take your point about how the last line could be read that May would be more difficult than a cozy fire in his absence. Dickinson is so delightfully ambiguous.

  2. If the date of this poem is accurate, it was written during the time when Higginson was away at war. It might be that the poem was written for him.

    1. If so, and it is more than plausible, this would be a very nice addition to Civil War poetry: The empty couch on a cold night prompting memories of love and well-being. Among the 'Poor' the housewife shivers for would be the soldiers on the field.