How many times these low feet staggered— Summary

Emily Dickinson


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Though this poem was written during the same period as poem 160, the appearance of the housewife figure in poem 187 required an altogether more plodding, heavy tone. Dickinson achieves this through alternating dactyls and trochees. The woman’s “—low feet staggered” so many times that “Only the soldered mouth can tell—.” Sealed coffin and mute corpse challenge anyone who desires to understand the hardship under which she labored to “Try” to “stir the awful rivet” and “lift the hasps of steel!” The corpse’s forehead is “cool” because in death it is free of labor. Dickinson repeatedly shifts the housewife’s burden to the reader through the imperatives “Try” (used twice) and“Lift.” Ironically, the domestic burden of the housewife’s duties becomes the weight of the coffin and the dead weight of handling the corpse itself: “the listless hair” and the “adamantine fingers,” stiffened in death. Their steel-like unyieldingness can no longer wear a tin thimble.

Predatory flies, a death and disease symbol which regularly appears in Dickinson’s poems, batter and speckle the woman’s once-clean chamber window. Both they and the sun are “Brave”; both sun and ceiling cobweb are “Fearless.” Even so, despite this oppressive imagery, the housewife has finally become “Indolent,” lain in a field of daisies. The poem thus resolves itself in a single line through the double implication of “indolent”: lazy, but also free from suffering. There is no contradiction at all in the two views of death Dickinson takes in her poetry. Seen from the aspect of the poet or of a woman whom household burdens do not confine, death becomes an awe-filled adventure contemplated with heroic anticipation. The moment the perspective becomes that of a housewife or a woman bound by domestic duties, death becomes a blessed release from labor.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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