‘The Night was wide, and furnished scant’: not one of Emily Dickinson’s most memorable opening lines, but it opens a curious poem which is worth closer analysis.
The Night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single Star —
That often as a Cloud it met —
Blew out itself — for fear —
The Wind pursued the little Bush —
And drove away the Leaves
November left — then clambered up
And fretted in the Eaves —
No Squirrel went abroad —
A Dog’s belated feet
Like intermittent Plush, be heard
Adown the empty street —
To feel if Blinds be fast —
And closer to the fire —
Her little Rocking Chair to draw —
And shiver for the Poor —
The Housewife’s gentle Task —
How pleasanter — said she
Unto the Sofa opposite —
The Sleet — than May, no Thee —
Emily Dickinson writes beautifully about nature scenes: consider her poem about snow, which brilliantly evokes the way snowfall renders a familiar scene unfamiliar and ghostly. establishing a very atmospheric scene. In ‘The Night was wide, and furnished scant’, she turns her thoughts not to the whiteness of snow but the blackness of night.
In summary, it’s a dark night: the solitary star is so fragile it seems almost to have blown itself out in fear, whenever it comes into contact with a cloud (in reality, of course, the cloud merely obscures the star from view). It’s a windy night, too: the wind doesn’t merely whistle through the bushes, it actively pursues them, blowing out all of the leaves on the bushes before moving upwards and making a racket in the roofs of houses. Even the squirrels are staying home, not daring to venture out in search of food on such a dark, windy night. A dog is scuttling home, late.
We then move indoors, to a housewife making sure the blinds are closed (to shut out the blustery night) before moving her rocking-chair closer to the warm fire. We know it’s late autumn – Dickinson’s reference to the leaves November has left on the bushes implies that autumn has done its worst, and we’re still in November, but getting closer to the winter months. The housewife gives a sympathetic shiver for ‘the Poor’ – those too poor, presumably, to be in a position to enjoy the warmth of a nice indoor fire at this time of year.
Dickinson ends ‘The Night was wide, and furnished scant’ with the housewife addressing the sofa across from her rocking-chair. Is she addressing a person sitting on the sofa (given she’s a ‘Housewife’, the natural assumption is her husband)? What seems more likely is that the sofa is empty but that it was once occupied – presumably by the now absent husband, who is either dead or away fighting (many of Dickinson’s most celebrated poems were written during the American Civil War).
This final stanza is perhaps the most difficult to interpret, but the housewife appears to be addressing the absent beloved: ‘the cold weather (Sleet) of this time of year is easier to bear without you here, than Maytime will be without you.’ In other words: I’d rather suffer the winter alone rather than the warm summer without you. However, this is only one interpretation of a closing stanza that has puzzled critics.