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09 June 2018

Death sets a Thing significant

Death sets a Thing significant
The Eye had hurried by
Except a perished Creature
Entreat us tenderly

To ponder little workmanships
In Crayon – or in wool – 
With "This was last Her fingers did" —
Industrious until —

The Thimble weighed too heavy —
The stitches stopped —themselves —
And then 'twas put among the Dust
Upon the Closet shelves —

A Book I have — a friend gave —
Whose Pencil — here and there —
Had notched the place that pleased Him —
At Rest — His fingers are —

Now — when I read — I read not —
For interrupting Tears —
Obliterate the Etchings
Too Costly for Repairs.

Fr640 (1863)  J360

There is a fond sentimentality about this poem and a lack of consistency that undermine it.  It does, however, speak to the common impulse to treasure the last works, however insignificant, of someone we cared for after their death. first stanza declares that impulse: Death puts a value on things that we overlook while their makers live. But rather than having this impulse arise from within the mourner, Dickinson has the 'perished Creature' entreating us to 'ponder' the 'little workmanships' they might have left behind as if pleading not to be forgotten. We see a child's drawing or a housewife's woolen handiwork and, the poet suggests, we think about the circumstances of the creation. 
        The inconsistancy I mentioned comes from the third stanza where, despite the entreaties of the perished housewife, the woolen work was put away on some dusty closet shelf. This follows hard upon the ponderings about whether or not the work in question was the last thing she had made. Contrast this with the final stanza where the poet cannot read a book given to her by a friend before he died because of her copious tears. This example, I think, is more illustrative of the claim that Death gives things significance that otherwise they wouldn't have.

As for the fond sentimentality, it was part and parcel of Victorian women's poetry. Dickinson is known for her many poems on death, but her best works go deep while this one simply elaborates the simple notion that we cherish mementos of those we loved.


  1. I'm wondering if you are selling this one short. Doesn't is also suggest a kind of bitter paradox that while we can sentimentalize an object after a person dies, and while we often value that object in ways we might otherwise not even notice, the person and the object will soon make their way into oblivion. To me it is this haunting oblivion that save this poem from sentimentality.

    1. I think the wool example suggests oblivion, but how does the marked book suggest it? But now that I write that I am saddened by the contrast: the child's work, the wife's work consigned to dusty shelves. Some other memento, the book in this case, keeps memory alive. Perhaps that is why the perished creatures entreat us so tenderly. But I don't think that is what you were getting at. Can you expand?

  2. For me, this poem has a moving poignancy to it, although I can understand why some might read it as somewhat sentimental in tone.
    As well as the imagery of the poem, I am drawn to the stylistic devices Dickinson employs to suggest meaning. In the first 5 lines, there is an unusual abundance of enjambment which speeds up the initial pace of the poem. This may emphasis our former quickness to dismiss the little 'Workmanships' of the dead in our busy day to day lifes, where our attention was previously focussed elsewhere. Dickinson then introduces caesura in line 6 where the pace of the meter suitably slows as the tone becomes more contemplative.
    The use of capitalisation is also striking. For instance, the capitalisation of nouns 'Crayon' and 'Wool' to describe the little fruits of the deceased person's creativity may show how we now regard these with much greater signifance than our former negligence allowed.
    Dickinson has used the noun 'Creatures' in previous poems to describe the dead. Here, the word is an apt choice as its very letters also allude to the verb 'create', suggesting the aesthetic endeavour and industriousness of the previously dynamic, but now defunct, individuals. The artistic skill of the dead may of course be exaggerated by the mourner left behind (in the way simple pencil markings in the margins of a book appear as etchings), but their 'little Workmanships' are precious less in their intrinsic aesthetic worth than as emotive mementos or reminders of those that created them, whose formerly busy, active fingers are now 'at rest' and inert forevermore.

  3. I thought that the viewing of the mementos could be at a future time. Reminiscent of poem F180, In Ebon Box, when years have flown, when they were covered in "velvet dust".

  4. What does "entreat us tenderly" mean?

    1. It's very straighforward. Look up 'entreat' and then think about doing it with tenderness. Use Google, the Emily Dickinson Lexicon, or the dictionary of your choice.