March 1, 2013

Dickinson: Safe in their alabaster chambers

The Springfield Republican in its March 1, 1862 issue included a short poem under the title "The Sleeping." Though it was printed anonymously, the author was 31-year old Emily Dickinson. The poem is notable not only because it is one of only a few published in her lifetime but also because it is one of only a few which she showed to another and asked for advice (which she followed). While working on the poem, she asked for a critique from Susan Gilbert Dickinson, wife of the poet's brother Austin. The poem, now known as "Safe in their alabaster chambers," was also one of several that she sent to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking if he could see if her verse was "alive."

The poem refers to dead bodies in their coffins awaiting the Biblical Resurrection. Scholar Helen Vendler notes the irony in the second stanza: the sounds of nature cannot be heard or appreciated by the dead with their "stolid ears". The final line somewhat blasphemy leaves doubt if a resurrection will really occur.

Today, other than the published version which was edited by the newspaper, there are two known versions of the poem, each with significant word choice changes. After its publication, Susan Dickinson offered suggestions particularly to improve the second stanza of her sister-in-law's poem. The word "Sleepy" replaced "Lie" in the earlier version, possibly to allow a more obvious possibility of awaking in the Resurrection. Here is the new version with its vastly different second stanza, using Dickinson's original and unique style of capitalization and dashes:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning —
And untouched by noon—
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin, and Roof of Stone.

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them —
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments — row —
Diadems — drop —
And Doges — surrender —
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disc of Snow.


  1. In looking at the digitized issues of the Springfield Weekly Republican in America's Historical Newspapers, it appears that this poem appeared first in the Saturday, March 8, issue (on page 6, column 1), rather than the week earlier. We don't find "The Sleeping" in the March 1 issue. Perhaps we are simply unable to spot it.

  2. I haven't seen the original issue but here are my sources for the date:

  3. David, I should have noticed this on first reading your comment: if I'm understanding this correctly, the Springfield Weekly Republican seems to have been a compilation from issues of the Springfield Daily Republican. It was the daily version that published "The Sleeper" for the first time on page 2 of its March 1 issue. It was then included in the next issue of the weekly.