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04 September 2021

When Night is almost done –

When Night is almost done – 
And Sunrise grows so near 
That We can touch the Spaces – 
It’s time to smooth the Hair – 

And get the Dimples ready – 
And wonder We could care 
For that Old – faded Midnight – 
That frightened – but an Hour – 
                                     FR 679 (1863) J347 
This is a delightful poem no matter how many times and in how many ways you read it. The meter and diction are simple and common. This is not a flashy, hair-on-the-neck-rising Dickinson poem, but one presenting a disarming metaphor of Night and Sunrise. It’s imagery is feminine and fresh. Probably all the great poets devote lines to the welcome transformation of Night into Day at Sunrise, but have any of them ever advised the reader to prepare for the event by primping? 

There are several ways one might read the poem and its symbolism. 

 In the first and simplest, the poem is a rather literal sketch of morning ritual. During the dark of night we sleep and dream and sometimes those dreams are frightening or disturbing. When the sun comes up, the dreams and fears fade and it’s time to do the hair, warm up the smile, and wind up that positive attitude. We gain daylight confidence as the world becomes tangible. We can now see what is around us, recognize things and the space between things. We can reach and grasp, unlike in the dark where we grope and fumble. 

A second reading speaks to the human condition and mythos. Two realms, light and dark, comprise our lives. Every day involves a journey towards night with its dark dreamings. Each night brings us back to where Sunrise illuminates the world. Light is consciousness – we recognize and can ‘touch the Spaces’, whereas night’s darkness is the realm of the subconscious. We cannot touch anything in its dark mysteries. This cycle between dark and light continues throughout our lives. Its rhythms and imagery pervade our myths and stories. The Underworld is sketched as dark while Heaven is filled with light. No wonder we fix our hair and make a smile: these small gestures are transitional acts of faith that light follows dark as surely as spring follows winter. 

A third reading is a teaching metaphor on how to face death. We fear the dimming of the light of life and we particularly fear our final Midnight. But Dickinson reminds us that Sunrise comes, that we had nothing to be afraid of, that night/death is but a doorway into Sunrise – life beyond death. We experience a different existence, one palpable and real; even Space is real. As this transitional moment approaches, it’s time to fix ourselves up and be ready. 

I like this third reading and note that Dickinson does not have us praying or repenting or calling out to God. Instead, she keeps the light touch. We ready ourselves to meet our Maker by patting the hair and going full-dimple smile. 

Dickinson could have written this in iambic pentameter rather than iambic trimeter for a more stately effect. But the hair and dimple instructions are just too playful and the short lines underscore that. They also create a clever irony in the gravity of the topic (if readings two or three are taken) and its poetic treatment.


  1. All great readings of the poem, Susan, but I think I like your third the best (it sounds like you do too).

    Your point about the tone is really worth chewing on, not just with this poem, but with many of Dickinson's poems. The "stately" tone of pentameter would have exhibited a much different philosophy. Her approach is never, or very rarely, just to grit your teeth and endure life (or death), but to live and savor life (and death sometimes too). Her common measure is the perfect meter for this, I think. It's not easy to sigh and moan in beats of four and three.

    1. "It's not easy to sigh and moan in beats of four and three." That's a great way to put it.

  2. Seems Emily was frightened the night before by a mere time of day (nothing "but an Hour"). Come morning, she marvels that a mere time of day (now "faded") had the ability to frighten.

  3. Bravo!
    Wonderful. All three are wonderful.

  4. Ok. One further comment. Touch the spaces is a magical understanding of being able to see the objects that come into the light. Your pointing it out clarifies how we touch the spaces between the cup and saucer, between the spoon and counter because it is light in the spaces that shapes the cup and spoon.
    Oh how wonderful…

    1. It is a wonderful phrase to contemplate -- my favorite part of the poem.

  5. I believe I read that ED woke up before sunrise (I think I read 3AM?) to do her writing. So this poem would accord with that too, the contemplative time just before sunrise, contemplating the night before, putting its fright behind you, but also the day ahead, and preparing yourself for it. I love the idea of getting the dimples ready. I'll try to remember that one when I wake up tomorrow. "Time to get the dimples ready!"

  6. I don’t think that person who is not depressed or anxious has to remind herself to get the dimples ready when a new day begins. Here is what Clark Griffith writes in his book The Long Shadow:
    “Here, to the unwary, is a perfectly straightforward poem. It says simple things, and says them simply: night and night’s terrors have waned; the time is now come for renewed hope, renewed cheerfulness. The points are made without any apparent qualification, and, as far as that goes, with a bow or two in the direction of the platitudinous. Yet the wary will nonetheless wish to qualify – will question the poem, in part, because of the laborious way in which the speaker hast to discipline herself before she can become cheerful. Is there not something desperately mechanical about the smoothing of that hair, a note of something strained and stilted in the arrangement of those dimples? Do not both gestures somehow debase the speaker’s optimism, suggesting that she had to cover real fears beneath a made-up, a wholly artificial state of mind?”
    The smoothing of the hair reminds me of the smooth mind from F576. I also think of what she writes in F181 (Mirth is the Mail of Anguish).

  7. Another interpretation:

    Rising from deep depression
    Into manic day
    Liberates us to see life clearly.
    It’s time to smooth the hair

    And get the dimples ready
    And wonder why we let
    That faded darkness
    Frighten us for an hour.