Category Archives: Homer, Winslow

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.

Taken from men — this morning

School Time, 1874, Winslow Homer
Background Image: School Time, 1874, Winslow Homer

I wonder if Emily had heard news of one of the local school children dying and this is the poem she wrote in remembrance of the little girl? What is unusual about this poem is she uses the word “Gods” and “kingdoms” (plural) rather than singular. I wonder if this is her way of expressing that our fate after death is not limited to just one possibility, but an eternity of possibilities?

The first stanza deals with the two sorts of taking that happens when someone dies. In the first line, Death is the one who has “taken” a life from “men” (humanity). The second line deals with the “men” who have “carried” the body to the grave to be buried. We don’t yet know whom has been taken, but we feel the sadness of the “men” when we read the line “in mourning” (mourning) enjambed into the next line “carried by men today” so that it can be read as the “men” carrying their mourning (“morning”). This simple enjambment creates the image of the funeral procession and the emotional quality of the people involved.

The third line is where the poem becomes more complicated because she uses the word “Gods”, not God, to describe who is the one that has “marshalled her away”. Though we now know the person how died is a “her”, it’s curious that we have two plural images: “Gods” and “banners”. The use of “marshalled” is also unusual in that it’s evokes military order as in the phrase marshaling the ranks into order.

While I do not know what Emily’s intent with the plural and militaristic language was, I get the (personal) impression that she is suggesting that this “one little maid” be ushered away from this mortal realm into the afterlife with as much honor as would be given a fallen and famous military hero. This “little [mind’s]” life is just as worthy as a soldier who served on the battlefield and so she should be given the same dignity and respect in death because all lives are precious and worthy of honor.

The other issue of the usage of plurals is that Emily might not be referring to multiple Gods, but that she is inside the minds of the “men” at the funeral and she is imagining how each of us has a different relationship and idea of what God might be. In Christianity there is only one God, but each person has a personal relationship with the God so for each person God is a unique and different being. Thus each person at the funeral is imagining a unique idea of what the afterlife will be like for this “little maid”.

The second stanza describes whom has died: “One little maid”, “One little mind” which describes the little girl, but as with lines 3 and 4 of the first stanza, lines 3 and 4 are unusual in their imagery. Here she describes not heaven, but rather Eden and she describes Eden as a sort of hotel or lodging that has no room left in it because “all the rooms are full”. Is she suggesting this is why humanity can’t go back to Eden because there is no room left? And if so, who then is occupying Eden in all these rooms? Yet she has combined this image with that of the “school” so she alludes to the afterlife as being like a school full of innocent children all sitting at their desks and there not being room for anyone else. Perhaps she is suggesting that humanity, when in Eden, is like a school full of children who are innocent of the reality of mortal life?

The final stanza begins with a play on ‘East of Eden’ (which is the Land of Nod where Cain was exiled to wander forever) and this relates to the image of Eden being full – full with perhaps the souls who deserve to remain in Eden / heaven, unlike Cain who is banished from God’s kingdom. Yet Emily is also describing a scene in which the “East” (morning) is far away from evening (“Even”) – a lot of time and space separates them – which perhaps she means as the gulf between life and death? And “Even” can also mean to make fair (make even) and death is the great leveler / evener of them all.

Finally, and once again, the final two lines of a stanza, shifts the image again, this time describing how when we (the “departed”) die we become “quaint” “Courtiers” in the kingdom of heaven, which she describes as the “Dim” “border star”. And once again she uses the plural “Kingdoms” rather than kingdom, once again suggesting, perhaps, that waiting for each of us is our own unique afterlife relationship with our personal God?

The final line is quite poignant in that she describes the “departed” as still existing by saying the “departed are”. She is suggesting that our loved ones are still vital and fulfilling a purpose (like a courtier), but that they have taken up residence elsewhere because they have crossed the great gulf between “morning” and “Even” (evening).

I admit to struggling with this poem; it’s not clear and obvious what she is suggesting with her word choice, but nothing in the poem feels out of place or poorly written – just obtuse. In fact the usage of plurals regarding the afterlife suggests a hint of uncertainty as to what awaits us after death – many “Kingdoms” and “Gods” can be imagined, and considering how many people and cultures there are in all of human history there are plenty of unique ideas about what awaits us after death.

After having read “Some, too fragile for winter winds“, I wonder if what she means by the many “Kingdoms” is that death itself is a kingdom? In that poem she describes death as “the thoughtful grave” and that God and Jesus did not notice the one who died, but death has been kind enough to not forget them.

Bless God, he went as soldiers

Home, Sweet Home, 1863, Winslow Homer
Background Image: Home, Sweet Home, 1863, Winslow Homer

Her point in this poem is that if only God would let her see the glorious soldier as the angel he has become in the afterlife then it will give her the courage to face death and not be afraid of dying since she would know that there is something awaiting her on the other side.

Yet there is no resolution in the poem, she does not see the soldier “In [his] epauletted white” (as in he’s been transformed into an angel in white robes), she is only asking “God” to let her “behold” the image because as it stands right now she doesn’t have the strength of faith to face the “foe” and fight the “fight”. She wants proof, but God remains silent all through the poem.

And this doubt is carried over from the previous poem, “When I count the seeds” which she describes as the “Bee” whose sting of doubt she is trying to avoid. That poem predicts the countless dead who will lay on the battlefields of the US Civil War which will occur in just a few years, and perhaps her doubt is a manifestation of the uncertainty of the times in which the future of the nation was in doubt. In other words, she wants to know that everything will work out and that fighting the battle to come will be worth it and won’t just result in a lot of people laying in graves, that our lives, like her nation, will live on.