from frost

Some, too fragile for winter winds,
The thoughtful grave encloses,—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold.

Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look
And sportsman is not bold.

This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,—
Sparrows unnoticed by the Father;
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

Well, this is Christmassy. A poem about dead children, cold in the grave. Sheesh, Emily. What’s most notable about this poem, though, is that it reads like the kid version of “Because I could not stop for Death.” The grave/death is depicted as a kind caretaker, gently tucking them in, protecting them from the harshness of life. It provides safe harbor, a place where nothing can find or harm them.

And then there’s the ending. Dickinson ends this one with a little heresy. Describing the dead children Biblically as “lambs” and “sparrows,” she says that they are “unnoticed by the Father,” contradicting the Biblical passage about how no sparrow falls unnoticed by God, and all the Biblical references to God as loving shepherd who lets no sheep become lost.

What to do with this? Dickinson argues that death is kinder to these lost lambs than God–more attentive and protective. One can only wonder what her preacher father would have thought of such a poem, how Puritan New England would have received it. Maybe Dickinson tied up her poems and tucked them away not because she wanted to remain anonymous, but because she knew her world wasn’t ready for them.


FROM all the jails the boys and girls
Ecstatically leap,—
Beloved, only afternoon
That prison does n’t keep.

They storm the earth and stun the air,
A mob of solid bliss.
Alas! that frowns could lie in wait
For such a foe as this!

~Emily Dickinson

In my copy of Dickinson’s poems, this one is titled “Saturday Afternoon,” and I was meant to be writing it on Saturday afternoon, but, while the girls and boys have already ecstatically leapt from their jails, the teachers of said escaped inmates are still imprisoned by checklists and room cleanup and faculty meetings and report cards. So I give you this poem on a Sunday afternoon instead, as I prepare to go back to what my granddad liked to call “the knowledge mill” to finish up my remaining time so that I, too, may be free.

In which we disagree about childhood

Softened by Time’s consummate plush,
How sleek the woe appears
That threatened childhood’s citadel
And undermined the years!

Bisected now by bleaker griefs,
We envy the despair
That devastated childhood’s realm,
So easy to repair.

~Emily dickinson

I’m going to have to take issue with The Myth on this one. Well, not so much take issue as offer an opposing viewpoint. The world is full of adult humans who would no doubt agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed in this poem: when we’re children, we experience griefs and woes and setbacks that seemed enormous at the time, but now, in retrospect, are enviable in their simplicity, their relative mildness, to what we experience as adults.

But here’s the thing–I suspect that those adults who look back on childhood as some sort of golden age are the grownups who’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child. Perhaps childhood’s griefs–at least for the privileged some of us–are not as “serious” as adulthood’s, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less important or impactful. The storms that rock our childhoods mattered every bit as much then as adult ones do now, and they probably shaped us more, occurring as they did in our formative years.

How can anyone quantify anyone else’s grief, anyone else’s hardship? I frequently hear people–okay, women, it’s almost always women–comparing their griefs and losses to other people’s and concluding that other people have it worse, that they themselves should shut up and just be grateful. But there’s no yardstick for grief. We feel it how we feel it. And when we are children, we feel it keenly. It molds us, carves us, lathes us into what we will become. Childhood’s griefs are no less important that those of adulthood, no less “serious” just because they may appear lesser in magnitude to things that seem important to adults.

Adults too often have forgotten what’s truly important. It’s as if a veil settles over our eyes, clouding our vision of the world. We begin to accept that it’s the things of adulthood that matter, forgetting that entire world of childhood, the world that makes us. Childhood’s griefs are not necessarily “easier to repair”–I’d argue that they’re harder. There is no going back.

So, for all the grownups out there who remember what it was like to be a child, who consciously and eternally hold within their adult shells the children they were (and still are), I see you. Your childish griefs matter. They were real, and they are real. Don’t forget what it was to be a child. The children who have not yet hardened into adults need you to remember.


FAR from love the Heavenly Father
Leads the chosen child;
Oftener through realm of briar
Than the meadow mild,

Oftener by the claw of dragon
Than the hand of friend,
Guides the little one predestined
To the native land.

~emily dickinson

I want to do an alternate reading of this poem wherein the little child is delighted to be led by giant dragons who, let’s be real here, are way more interesting than the generic “friend.” The Realm of Briar is a faerie court of wonderfully fey beings, and maybe when the child arrives at the “predestined” land, she turns around and goes back to have the adventure all over again rather than settling for the ease of a life of milk and honey.

But I know what Dickinson is really saying, and I’m feeling it. It’s been a dragony week–a dragony month, beset with obstacles and setbacks of all kinds. I am trying to take comfort in these words, in the idea that all of this struggling is leading somewhere better. It’s hard to see the promised land for the briars when you’re smack in the middle of them, though.

Practising sands

We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Learned gem-tactics
Practising sands.

~EMily dickinson

Brenna: Short and sweet!

Pam: I like short and sweet!

Brenna: Okay, let’s go!

Pam: Oh, I like this!

Brenna: Have you read this one before?

Pam: I haven’t! Have you?

Brenna: I was very familiar with the first four lines, but had somehow never read the last four! I must have seen them quoted somewhere.

Pam: This one is new to me!

Brenna: Excellent! So, let’s talk poem!

Pam: It makes me think of learning something new. Like, starting off with crayons if you’re learning to draw, then getting good enough to realize you’re terrible.

Brenna: Yes! I think, on a surface level, it’s about how the simple things we learn as children transfer to adulthood.

Pam: But you’ve still learned valuable skills. Yes!

Brenna: But I think there’s more to it than that. First of all, there’s the way that we judge our past, younger, less experienced selves–we deem ourselves fools for being psyched about things like learning to tie our own shoes.

Pam: Oh, excellent point.

Brenna: Then there’s the reversal–“the shapes, though, were similar.” Maybe we weren’t so foolish after all. It almost feels like there’s a teensy tinsy implied critique here of the pearls. Real gems are virtually indistinguishable from good copies. What are we really valuing? And then “our new hands.” It’s as if not only have we changed–we’ve actually become new. We are new people now. And then “gem-tactics.” I stinkin’ love that. It’s like a whole huge social commentary in one made-up, Emilyfied compound word. Women’s self-adorning=tactics.

Pam: I like the differences between the paste and the pearls. You can do so many things with paste–you can make art, fix things. Pearls can pretty much just be admired. The average person wouldn’t have a multitude of uses for them. But we value them more.

Brenna: And “gem-tactics” sounds like “gymnastics”–the ways in which we contort ourselves to fit into our roles as adult women. Oooh, good point! Paste is useful and more fun.

Pam: I think you have this poem’s number.

Brenna: I love your point about paste. Paste has a potential that pearls do not. They are done, no longer becoming.

Pam: What does “practising sands” mean, though?

Brenna: Ooooh, Pam!! Pearls are instigated by sand!

Pam: Gasp

Brenna: Sand is what makes pearls!!! TA-DAAAAA!!!

Pam: We are the pearls!!!

Brenna: We are! AND the sand! We are Every Woman. It’s all in us.

Pam: I love this!!!

Brenna: We carry within our adult selves the grains of our child selves. They may irritate, but they have made us what we are. DANG, Emily.

Pam: Incredibly profound. I really love this one!

Brenna: It’s a great one!

Pam: And from the outset, I thought, I have no clue what this means. I can’t figure this out. And in five minutes, you opened my eyes and now we get it. And we are pearls.

Brenna: We are SO pearls.

Bittersweet blossoms

As children bid the guest good-night,
And then reluctant turn,
My flowers raise their pretty lips,
Then put their nightgowns on.

As children caper when they wake,
Merry that it is morn,
My flowers from a hundred cribs
Will peep, and prance again.

~Emily dickinson

Crocuses have begun peeping from the barren earth. Incongruously bright against the dead grass, they dot the brown with tiny firework-explosions of white and purple.

Each plant sends forth a single bloom, so when my newly ten-year-old son comes running with a minuscule blossom clamped between two fingers, I am lanced with bittersweetness. That flower is done, gone. My little boy, not so little anymore, still brings me the first flower he finds every spring.

Parenthood is like that, love laced with delight and punctuated by constant reminders that no moment is forever.

Stop now!


I’m wife; I’ve finished that,
That other state;
I’m Czar, I’m woman now:
It’s safer so.

How odd the girl’s life looks
Behind this soft eclipse!
I think that earth seems so
To those in heaven now.

This being comfort, then
That other kind was pain;
But why compare?
I’m wife! stop there!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: Pam. We already did this one. SIGH

Wait, no. We did not.

Pam: lol

Brenna: I did the one AFTER it.

Pam: Well, I still have no idea what is happening.

Brenna: Okay. “Apocalypse.” !! That’s not ominous.

Pam: END of the WorLd

Brenna: Who the hell titled this poem??

Pam: That is a wonderful question. If she’s wife, what has she finished?

Brenna: Being a little girl. And it’s weird that she finds being a wife “safer.” RUN, EMILY. IT IS NOT SAFE. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON.

Pam: We know that she was not a wife. Am I meant to assume some other narrator? Is she being obscure for the heck of it? Is she a nun? Is she married to God? What is HAPPENING I seriously do not know.

Brenna: She likes to write as if she’s a wife. From a wife’s perspective.

Pam: Why? Please school me.

Brenna: I guess for the reason any poet writes from any other perspective?Also it could be a God poem. Or a dude poem. Either one. I think she must have liked imagining she was married. Imagining is for sure safer.

Pam: Okay, so: she’s wife now. She’s Czar, so she gets to be in charge, unlike in her unwedded state.

Brenna: I think she’s writing from the perspective of a married woman. She’s left behind childhood, girlhood. Where it gets weird for me is her assertion that being a wife is safer.

Pam: Yes! How is this safer?

Brenna: Wives die in childbirth. It’s not safer, Emily!!

Pam: I was just typing that!! Safer economically, perhaps, assuming the husband is a decent provider?

Brenna: Maybe it’s safer because now she’s in a relationship? Now she’s married and no longer searching. She’s a “heart in port,” safe from the tempestuous passion of “wild nights” and from temptation? And then she reflects on how strange childhood looks from her womanly perspective, and that makes sense to me. It’s surreal to take on an adult role. I wonder how many of us ever really feel fully adult. I remember my mom telling me that when she was married with young children, she used to sometimes look around in a daze and wonder where the grownups were.

Pam: The way she describes the two states is very interesting to me. We have wife, czar, woman, and safer vs. that and that other state.

Brenna: Yes! super interesting and weird. And “czar” is a male role. So by becoming a wife she’s become a man? Because she’s joined with a man?

Pam: And that last rhyming couplet is such a childlike thing to say!

Brenna: It is! It’s like she reverts at the end.

Pam: There’s this image of the grownup married woman saying these ridiculously simple rhymes.

Brenna: And I think that’s telling.

Pam: Yes! It subverts the idea that marriage = adult, grownup, more wise. It’s like the person who tells you how incredibly humble they are.

Brenna: “This being comfort, then/ That other kind was pain”. This is a weird thought. “Because marriage is comfort, then it logically follows that childhood was NOT comfort.” It’s like she’s trying to convince herself with bad logic. So there’s this reversal. The wife doth protest too much. She opens with “It’s so great to be a wife!” but then flip flops at the end. “It MUST be great to be a wife because everybody says so and I’m supposed to want this.”

Pam: Yes! We have to wonder who the audience is, if it’s not just the speaker saying these things to convince herself.

Brenna: “But why compare?/ I’m wife! Stop there!” It’s as if, looking back at childhood from her current reality of marriage, which is supposed to be better, she’s trying to tell us that it’s not better. But as a wife, she’s not allowed to say that. She has to make it sound good, but she has serious reservations. She has to shut herself up so she doesn’t say what she’s really thinking. I wonder…is this Emily trying to convince herself that it’s better to remain single??

Pam: Or, at least, to show us that being a wife doesn’t mean that your problems go away.

Brenna: Hell no they do not go away. You just end up with kids who get the plague and then you are stuck at home cleaning things and cooking soup and going out of your mind. Of course it is possible that my current mental state is coloring my reading of this poem… Maybe the speaker is imagining what it’s like to be a wife. She wonders if she’s missing anything. She thinks at first that she is–comfort, stability, a steady relationship to depend on. But as she thinks about it, she realizes what she’s losing.

Pam: Yes! I think this is why the rhyme scheme switches in the last stanza, too.

Brenna: I love reversals in poems. I geek out about this kind of thing.

Pam: She’s exploring in the first two stanzas, and in the last she’s come to a decision–but it’s not the one she expected. This may be why she reverts to this more childlike rhyme scheme; the first two stanzas are still AABB, but they are very, very loose rhymes. You can’t tell me that anybody, even in the 1800s, actually thought that that/state was anything other than a slant rhyme. But we have perfect rhyme in compare/there. Your current mental state is RELEVANT to this poem.

Brenna: I love how you always bring it back to the rhyme scheme. I forget to do that.

Pam: I can’t help but to check the rhyme scheme first every time.
What do you think? Have we done it justice?

Brenna: I think we have done it all the justice we can possibly do it at this moment. Stop there!

“The fathoms they abide”

 Full fathom five thy father lies; 
              Of his bones are coral made; 
    Those are pearls that were his eyes: 
              Nothing of him that doth fade, 
    But doth suffer a sea-change 
    Into something rich and strange. 
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
    Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

~William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Emily Dickinson

Today’s poem comes to you courtesy of my great-great-grandmother’s copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Yesterday my mom gave it to me. She had been going through her books, found this one, and thought I might like to have it. I had forgotten to tell her about this project, so it seemed a wonderful, magical coincidence.

The book is old, worn, obviously well-read. Its spine is completely missing. Any dust jacket it once bore is long gone (I wonder if that paper has rotted away into soil, its molecules alchemized into earth, blossoms, bees…)

New and old…

My great-great-grandmother’s name was Lucile Jansen Bower. A generation before her, my great-great-great-grandmother, wife of an authoritarian husband, walked into the Atlantic Ocean one day and did not return. Officially, she drowned. Her story, as it has come to be handed down over a century, ends with, “but she was a very strong swimmer.” The implication is that her death was not accident but escape. I read The Awakening in college, long before I ever heard this family tale, and the first hearing broke me out in cold chills, forever conflating Edna and my ancestor in my imagination.

I wonder what Lucile thought of as she read this poem. Did she hold it up against her own marriage as a woman holds a dress against her body to estimate the fit? Did she think of her mother-in-law and the fathoms she abided?

Emily Dickinson must have thought of Ariel’s song from The Tempest as she wrote these lines. The first stanza begins in rather ordinary fashion–girl becomes woman becomes wife. It all sounds solemn and expected. Then, the turn–in the second stanza, the telling “If.” If her life lacked awe, amplitude, if the gloss wore off–only if–then that lack is as unknown as the ocean’s depths. Why “if”? Why introduce the idea at all if it isn’t so? Dickinson implies that in her marriage, the wife is silent, silenced. This is an interesting poem to include among the sections of love poems in Dickinson’s work. The wife in the first stanza is like a caterpillar become butterfly. In the last stanza, the allusion parallels her with a dead man. Birth, new life, death. The more Dickinson I read, the more I marvel at her ability to make basically anything all about death.

When I stand at the edge of the Atlantic, I think of my great-great-great-grandmother. In an anachronistic imagined memory I see her, standing with her back to a continent. I cannot see her face. She looks out at the infinite expanse, monsters gliding beneath its unquiet surface. She understands that they are free.

If I could somehow stop her, would this change the course of history? In the second this thought takes to lodge in my brain she steps out into the surf, her skirts billowing around her, and strikes out, strong and confident, for the impossible horizon.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring her knell.

The sad, sad tale of a little, little boat, a gallant, gallant sea, and a greedy, greedy wave

’T WAS such a little, little boat
That toddled down the bay!
’T was such a gallant, gallant sea
That beckoned it away!
’T was such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the coast;
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost!

~Emily Dickinson

Since this is Dickinson, and therefore the boat could be anything from a heart to a soul to a life to a dream, and since I didn’t plan my day out very well and am pressed for time, I’m going to sidestep meaning and focus on Dickinson’s word choice.

It’s the repetition here that really interests me. “Little, little,” “gallant, gallant,” and “greedy, greedy” are all two-syllable words. “Little” and “greedy” are words a child would know (and “gallant” is definitely a word that child-Emily would have known). (I’m not sure why the sea is “gallant”–could this be an emulation of the childlike tendency to misunderstand words? The sea is hardly actually gallant if it is involved in the boat’s demise.) The repetition of these short words in one small poem gives it a childlike quality–it almost sounds as if the boat is a child’s toy. Anyone who’s ever sailed a toy boat will agree that they often “toddle” rather than taking to the water like swans. After it “toddled down the bay,” the boat takes no further action–it is acted upon. It is beckoned away, licked from the coast, and lost. In the last line, Dickinson uses “little” a third time. The use of the same generic adjective three times in eight lines adds to the childish quality.

The “stately sails” that don’t notice the loss of the small craft are like adults who don’t notice or honor the force of the loss children feel. When we are very young, our hearts are broken time and again, sometimes by big things, but often by tiny ones. As adults, it’s all too easy to forget this, to say condescendingly, “It’s not the end of the world,” when to the child’s mind it is, and no adult perspective matters, can soothe the pain of loss.

Whatever the boat stands in for–whatever’s been lost–the speaker’s reaction to it is like a child’s–simple, devastated, emotional. I think in a way that’s how loss hits all of us. I think of adults I’ve known who’ve lost their parents and said, “I’m an orphan.” It doesn’t matter that they’re sixty or seventy–the loss hits them hard, strikes at them in a way that makes them feel suddenly small, young, powerless. In the face of loss, we all become childlike, adrift in the wide, wide world.