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Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers
By Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Tone
Summary
Text of the Poem
Theme
Inversion
Rhyme
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Author's Biography

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012

Type of Work

......."Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” is a lyric poem focusing on the peace of deceased Christians lying at rest in their tombs. A lyric poem presents the feelings of the author whereas a narrative poem presents a story.

Publication

.......
The first version of “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” was published as “The Sleeping” in the March 1, 1862, issue of the Springfield Daily Republican, a Massachusetts newspaper. This version contained the first two stanzas. A second version, containing the first and third stanzas, appeared in 1861. The final version—published on this page—appeared in Poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson. Little, Brown, and Company of Boston and New York published this work in four volumes in 1912. 

Tone

.......The tone of the poem is calm and unafraid even though the topic is death. Dickinson wrote often of death, sometimes regarding it as a friend.

Summary

.......The Christian dead lie at rest in their tombs of alabaster. Directly above them is a ceiling of satin and, above that ceiling, the roof of the tomb. The dead do not know the time of day—whether it is morning, noon, or night. Outside the tomb, the breeze blows, bees hum, and birds chirp. Years go by. Kings and queens and other rulers fall from power. But the hubbub of the outside world does not disturb the sleeping dead. (See also Theme.) 

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Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers
By Emily Dickinson

Safe in their alabaster1 chambers,
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine ;
Babbles the bee in a stolid
2 ear ;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence,—
3
Ah, what sagacity4 perished here !

Grand go the years in the crescent
5 above them ;
Worlds
6 scoop their arcs,7 and firmaments8 row,
Diadems drop and Doges9 surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.10
 

Notes

1
....alabaster: White gypsum that may be translucent or opaque. It is used to make monuments and statues.
2
....stolid: Impassive; showing little emotion.
3
....cadence: Rhythm, beat.
4
....sagacity: Wisdom.
5
....crescent: Crescent moon.
6....Worlds: Planets.
7....arcs: Orbits.
8....firmaments: Skies; arching vault of the heavens.
9....Doges: Elected rulers of Venice, Italy, until 1797 and Genoa, Italy, until 1805.
10..dots . . . snow: This phrase sounds good but the meaning is unclear.

Theme

.......The theme of the poem is that a person's belief in the resurrected Christ turns death into a friend that receives the faithful departed into homes of stone (alabaster, line 1) with satin ceilings and quiet bedrooms (chambers, line 1), the Christians loyal to Christ rest in eternal peace and serenity, undisturbed by all that happens around them: the movements of the sun, the laughter of the wind, the buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds. 
.......Extraordinary political events in the world of the living—including the downfall of  kingdoms and empires—do not resonate with the sleepers. Their souls are attentive now only to the supernatural.
.......Are they already in paradise—that is, are their alabaster chambers a metaphor for heaven? Or, as line 3 suggests, are they awaiting the resurrection of their bodies? Either interpretation suffices. The point is that they have died in God's good graces; they need no longer undergo earthly pain and suffering. They have eternal bliss.

Inversion

.......Dickinson uses inverted word order in each stanza to heighten the poetic effect. For example, in the first stanza, the lines say, “Safe in their alabaster chambers  . . . sleep the meek members” instead of “the meek members sleep in their alabaster chambers.”
.......Dickinson also uses inversion in lines 5, 6, 7, and 9.

End Rhyme

.......Lines 2 and 4 of each stanza rhyme. However, lines 2 and 4 contain a special type of rhyme called consonance, in which pairs of words with different vowel sounds have the same final consonant sounds.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.

Alliteration
alabaster chambers (line 1)

meek
members of the resurrection (line 3)

Rafter of satin, and roof of stone

Soundless as dots on a
disk of snow (line 12)
Anaphora
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon
Metaphor
Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection
Comparison of the tombs to bedrooms (chambers)
Metonymy
Diadems drop
Use of diadems (crowns) to represent rulers
Personification and Metaphor
Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine
Personification: comparison of the breeze to a person
Metaphor: comparison of sunshine to a castle
Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write a short poem with a structure like that of Dickinson's poem (three four-line stanzas and similar end rhyme). The subject is open.
  • Identify an example of alliteration not included under Figures of Speech.
  • Identify an example of onomatopoeia in the poem.
  • Write an informative essay centering on Dickinson's religious beliefs and her views on the afterlife.