On such a night, or such a night

Bo-Peep, 1878, Winslow Homer
Background Image: Bo-Peep, 1878, Winslow Homer

This poem is related to “Some, too fragile for winter winds” and “Taken from men – this morning” in that she is writing about the death of a child but unlike “Taken from men” in which God might have not noticed this child, here even the parents and siblings don’t notice the child has died. Death comes quietly and softly and the ultimate fate is described as “so small a goal”.

This is going to be a VERY UNUSUAL reading of the poem.

When you look at the poem on the page each stanza appears to grow in width as it moves down the page and it creates an unusual contrast to the “goal” (of death) being so “small”, yet that image is in the widest / largest of all the stanzas. In fact, the final two stanzas deal with the memory of the child who has died and it’s a memory full of childish energy and activity, yet this memory is all that remains of the child, the memory lives on only as words on a page whereas the actual child has reached “so small a goal” as to exist only in memory, in a poem and, perhaps, no where else after death. There is no heaven here, no banners or marshals (as in “Taken from men – this morning“), just the “small” words on a page containing a memory.

The point of view of this poem is obscure in that who is recalling this memory of the child, and especially who is speaking in the first four stanzas? An easy answer would just be it’s Emily imagining all this – which she did since there is no evidence she’s writing about an actual event – yet I believe the first four stanzas can be read from death’s point of view.

The first hint that it’s death speaking is in the first line where she plays with the phrase “such and such” which does not refer to anyone in specific, as if someone is randomly sneaking about at night looking in windows for someone’s life to take. In the second line, “Would anybody care”, death has found a victim and wonders if “anybody” would “care” or, more importantly, notice if death came for this particular victim. The victim is described in the third line as “such a little figure” so we know it’s a child. Thus there is an implied image of death sneaking about at night like a burglar looking for an unsuspecting victim.

Oddly, the child is described as “quiet” in its “chair”. Maybe I am just not familiar with how children during the 19th century slept, but it seems unusual to describe them in a “chair” and not a bed or a crib, or even curled up next to a fireplace or stove. One interpretation could be that she is referring to a “chair” as a verb which would mean the “chair” is “a chair of authority” (OED) and what she’s implying would be that being alive is a person’s place of authority until death comes along and robs us of it. Another could be a play on the word “share”, as in an economic term, and that when we are alive it is out share of life “which is allotted or belongs to an individual” (OED).

However, a more graphic and morbid image but be what she means in that the child, who is described as full of life and energy at the end of the poem, might literally be standing on a chair, perhaps reaching for something it shouldn’t have in the middle of the night (like a cookie jar) but then slipped and was killed in the fall. Of course this would betray the sense of silence in the poem – she uses the words “quiet” three times over lines four and five when describing the action of the child slipping.

Even more morbid is the idea that not only is this part of the poem speaking from death’s point of view, but that death is not some abstract figure who sneaks up in the quiet of the night, but is the child’s parent who has killed the child in the quiet of the night. The image of “Rocked softer – to and fro” implies a hand rocking the cradle but as the rocking slows, the life leaves the body of the victim. Thus we are hearing the thoughts of the murderer as they contemplate (and carry out) committing this act in the middle of the night.

In fairness, this morbid reading seems out of character for anything I’ve read so far of Emily’s poems, however whenever an artist introduces ambiguity into their work then it does leave open the possibility for creative interpretation. And, I have to admit, I like the idea of Emily writing in the style of Edger Allen Poe – I mean, she probably was aware of him, so why not take a stab at it? (bad pun intended).

To push this more morbid reading of the poem, look at her word choice in the final stanza: she uses “nuts”, “charged”, and “goal” which could be a slant with ‘gallows’, as in the hangman’s gallows, though the word “nuts” to describe a crazy person wasn’t used until about 50 years later in the English language according to the OED, so it looks like I’m reaching much too far and shouldn’t get too far down this rabbit hole.

But I think it’s important to be wrong about a work of art and then trace back what it was that led you there. For me, the word “chair” was odd, and the point of view of the speaker is also sort of creepy in that it does seem like someone is contemplating a murder, be it either death himself as he comes for our souls quietly in the middle of the night but without malice, or someone with malice whom death is working through and thus we have the thoughts of someone carrying out a crime.

Emily has often written about death, but it usually comes across as death being like the reaper, a supernatural being or force who acts independently of man but in accordance with nature or under God’s orders. Yet Emily would have known that people are capable of doing terrible things and that infanticide was a real thing and so it’s possible she might be exploring this terrible situation.

In the last stanza she describes “feet so precious charged” which recalls an image of little feet charging about with childish energy as the child plays and enjoys “holidays”. Yet what if this final stanza are the thoughts of the person who carried out the crime and is now being punished? What is “goal” really is a slant for gallows and that “so small a goal” is the image of the condemned (as in “charged” with a crime) looking down at their feet on the trap door and that their whole life only led up to “so small a goal” as to be executed? When we consider how the poem expands as it moves down the page, we get an image of events moving faster, as if the poem is picking up energy that is released at the very end when the condemned, filled with the memory of what they have done, await the door opening and their body falling.