I KNOW some lonely houses off the road
A robber ’d like the look of,—
And windows hanging low,
Inviting to 5
Where two could creep:
One hand the tools,
The other peep
To make sure all ’s asleep. 10
Not easy to surprise!
How orderly the kitchen ’d look by night,
With just a clock,—
But they could gag the tick, 15
And mice won’t bark;
And so the walls don’t tell,
A pair of spectacles ajar just stir—
An almanac’s aware. 20
Was it the mat winked,
Or a nervous star?
The moon slides down the stair
To see who ’s there.
There ’s plunder,—where? 25
Tankard, or spoon,
Earring, or stone,
A watch, some ancient brooch
To match the grandmamma,
Staid sleeping there. 30
Day rattles, too,
Stealth ’s slow;
The sun has got as far
As the third sycamore.
Screams chanticleer, 35
“Who ’s there?”
And echoes, trains away, ~Emily Dickinson
While the old couple, just astir,
Think that the sunrise left the door ajar!
So begins a very October series of poems–Dickinson on the creepy, the macabre, the night-dwelling creatures, in honor of the spookiest month of the year.
I cannot adequately express how much I love this poem. This is the Dickinson poem I had no idea I needed. It’s deliciously creepy, linguistically playful, and just generally delightful.
This poem seems to represent a whole other side of Dickinson. The sight of “lonely houses” far from the road leads her into a dark little thought-experiment in which she at times seems to be imagining the scene from the perspective of the robber. This is definitely not what I was ever taught about Dickinson in school, and I love how unexpected it is.
She sets the scene so well–the lonely houses, the robber creeping in, the silence threatened by the smallest of sounds, the elderly couple asleep, in peril. What Dickinson is this??
What follows is even better–Dickinson’s wildly inventive use of language to personify the objects and creatures in the house: the gagged clock, the barking mouse, the stirring spectacles, the aware almanac, winking mat, nervous star, and that gorgeous image of the moon sliding “down the stair.” And then that final description of the old couple waking to find the door ajar and surmising that it was the sunrise who left it thus.
The structure is fun, too–uneven line lengths mimicking the tentative steps of the pair of robbers as they strive not to wake the old couple and alert their sentient possessions; and the final stanza, which has one less line than all the rest, as if the robbers have stolen that along with tankard, spoon, and antique jewelry.
I seriously cannot get enough of this poem. I keep reading and rereading it, struck each time by the nuances of some little detail or other, as well as by the entire mood of it, and the sheer unexpectedness of it. It’s a perfect October poem–though Dickinson never mentions the season, it feels like it has to be autumn.
Coming up this month–bats, mice, mushrooms, spiders, ghosts, cobwebs, spirits, graves, and, of course, death. Because Emily Dickinson.