Analysis of Poem "Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers" by Emily Dickinson

Updated on January 15, 2019
chef-de-jour profile image

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson | Source

Emily Dickinson and Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers is a poem that focuses on the resurrection of those who have led humble christian lives. It has strong religious and natural imagery and contains Emily Dickinson's trademark simple yet sophisticated hidden messages of irony and intuitive observation.

The history behind this poem needs to be explained because there are several different versions. Emily Dickinson altered the lines to the original following her dialogue, via letter, with Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-law, who advised changes to the second stanza. The year was 1859.

So, the version that was first published in the Springfield Daily Republican newspaper in 1862 was this revised work, with a different title, The Sleeping. It was two stanzas in length and the second stanza has references to the birds and the bees and laughter of the breeze.

A later version, published in 1890, retains the original first stanza but has a completely different second stanza. Emily Dickinson sent this modified poem to Thomas W. Higginson, literary critic, who helped publish her poems after her death.

  • A third version was published in the 1890 book Poems ( Higginson and Loomis Todd) and has three stanzas. The following analysis is based on this version.

Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers is one of Emily Dickinson's religiously controversial poems, not least because she was brought up in a Puritan family and was expected to follow the strict interpretation of all biblical matters, especially with regards the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It seems that, through her poems, she was able to express an alternative viewpoint, one that asked questions of the Puritan approach to nature, life and death.

Summary of Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

The humble christian dead lie sleeping, a cover of satin as well as a tombstone above them. They know nothing of the day or night, they have left time behind but the world goes on. Nature continues in its procreative way - the birds and bees are busy - but the dead are oblivious. The world is turning still, rulers and leaders lose wealth and power and here lie the cold and resurrected, undisturbed by such earthly matters.

Analysis of Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers is a lyric poem with occasional end rhyme and a mix of meter (metre in UK), iambic, spondaic and trochaic. On the page it appears orderly and regular, a reflection of a neat, simply marked out graveyard. Internally, the situation is more complex.

  • For example, note line 7:

Pipe the / sweet birds / in ig / norant cadence, -

This line has been inverted, so the verb comes first, to strengthen the poetic effect metrically. There is a trochee then a spondee followed by an iamb and an anapaest, which rises at the end, bringing anticipation.

Other inverted lines (5.6.7 and 9 in total) allow for better sounds and more appropriate, balanced stresses.

The syntax - the way clauses and sentences are formed - is unusual in that there is no enjambment where lines flow into one another without punctuation. Some lines end with a dash, others in a semi-colon or comma, indicating a pause for the reader.

  • All of this is typical Emily Dickinson - short lines conveying a strong image or message, nothing easily given away. Little wonder when this quote from another of her poems is considered:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant -

Success in circuit lies.

So she is suggesting that going about things in a roundabout way, not straightforwardly, gets best results. Use of metaphor, simile and symbol all help offset the truth.

  • Some of the words need defining:

alabaster - a white translucent gypsum stone often used for religious sculpture and tombstones.

meek - humble, gentle.

resurrection - the rising of the dead at the last Judgement.

rafter - wooden roof beam.

stolid - impassive.

cadence - rhythm, beat.

sagacity - wisdom, judgement.

firmaments - heavens, skies.

Diadems - jewelled crowns.

Doges - elected leaders of Venice (up to 1797) and Genoa (up to 1805).

Irony in Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

From the opening word of this poem there are ambiguities that pose a challenge. Why are these meek christians safe in their chambers - tombs - are they now out of danger of sin and ready to rise again, pure, like their lord Jesus? The meek shall inherit the earth so the beatitude goes, but all these people get is an ironic hint at their lack of wisdom and judgement. Nature somehow mocks them; absent are the spiritual laws of God. The cosmic processes go on;power wanes, is insignificant.

Further Analysis


There are obvious full end rhymes in this poem which help to bind the lines together and make it easier to remember. Note noon/stone (half rhyme) in the first stanza, ear/here in the second and row/snow in the last.

Near rhyme connects with alliteration and assonance and sibilance to further enhance the overall texture of sound:

Safe/Rafter/laughs.....alabaster chambers/castle.....Sleep the meek members/breeze/bee/sweet....roof/scoop....Diadems drop and Doges/Soundless as drops on a disk of snow.....Rafters of satin, and roof of stone.

This is a complex web of intertextual sounds that challenge the reader but also introduce a musical element.


The repeated use of Untouched in line two helps to reinforce the idea that the dead are in timeless zone and have no contact whatsoever with the rising sun, which is a symbol of Christ.


Chambers are bedrooms but the dead are in their tombstones? Chambers is a metaphor wherein the meek sleep. Sleep is strongly associated with death in the bible. "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep". I Corinthians 15:20.

Emily Dickinson must have known about this when she wrote in a letter to Abiah Root:

'some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping - sleeping the churchyard sleep -'


Diadems, jewelled crowns, represent all kings and rulers.

That Mysterious Last Line

Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

Poets and critics throughout the years have been scratching their heads in puzzlement over the last line of this poem. No one quite knows exactly what it means.

Some have declared it a purely poetic line; with mild sibilance and alliteration it has fascinating sounds but, in the end, it's simply an image observed by the poet one day as she walked through a winter churchyard.

In the context of the poem the last line could refer to the Diadems and Doges, the rulers and leaders, who silently relinquish their power as the cycles of time progress. Or the last line refers back to the previous three lines - the wealthy, the leaders, the cosmos, the orbiting planets - all are like dots (pinheads?) against a massive round universe, silently existing.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey


Submit a Comment

No comments yet.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)