A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Night was wide, and furnished scant’

‘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.


  1. isabellacatolica

    It’s all “Yes it is, no it isn’t”. The star is visible but then obscured by cloud; the wind blows, but moves up to the eaves and loses itself fretting; the sound of the dog is only half-produced, since it sounds as if it is alternately stepping on and off velvet – now you hear it, now you don’t; the blinds are closed, but maybe not securely enough; the chair is there, but not close enough. (Even, right at the end: Is it rain? No. Is it snow? No. Of course, it has to be sleet – neither one thing nor the other.) And then the sofa. Is someone sitting in it or not?
    “Well, I’ve told you everything up to now”, Emily Dickinson says. “Now you decide.”

  2. In reading more Dickinson more closely in the past year I keep seeing the gothic wit in her–so much that I worry I’m seeing it even when it may not be intended. Dickinson’s fractured syntax does make that last stanza hard to read at first. My reading of it is that “sofa” means it’s empty, the husband is gone. It’s not specified how/why gone. Dead presumably. The housewife has just finished her obligatory nightly late fall routine, and now once more must notice the husband’s absence. She concludes the cold, empty, lonely fall night (not a comforting or pleasant scene) feels “pleasanter” in ironic comparison to the fullness of a promising festive spring without the departed, where the contrast of the loss would be more devastating.

    I could even wonder if this is one of Dickinson’s poems commenting on the American Civil War.

    • That’s a really interesting reading of that final stanza, Frank – and I think it’s quite persuasive. I’d not read it that way, but now you mention it, the final words ‘no thee’ do invite us to infer the husband’s absence. The poem was written in the early 1860s, I think, so it would be contemporaneous with the Civil War.

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