In Rags Mysterious As These, Emily Dickinson: Summary & Analysis

"IN RAGS MYSTERIOUS AS THESE" by Emily Dickinson portrays a scene of contrast between the outward appearance and inner qualities of the shining courtiers. The poem reflects on the deceptive nature of appearances and explores the theme of humility and nobility. Through vivid imagery and irony, the poem invites readers to question the true nature of those who present themselves in a certain way and highlights the humility that can be found in unexpected places.


In rags mysterious as these
The shining Courtiers go —
Veiling the purple, and the plumes —
Veiling the ermine so.
Smiling, as they request an alms —
At some imposing door!
Smiling when we walk barefoot
Upon their golden floor!


"IN RAGS MYSTERIOUS AS THESE" depicts courtiers, who are usually associated with splendor and opulence, dressed in rags that obscure their true identity. These courtiers hide their majestic clothing and veils of ermine and plumes. They approach people with smiles, requesting alms at impressive doors, and continue to smile even as people walk barefoot upon their presumably lavish floors.

Critical Analysis

The poem begins by introducing the courtiers, who are typically known for their shining appearance and luxurious attire. However, they are portrayed as wearing "rags mysterious as these," implying that their true nature is concealed beneath their outward appearance.

The courtiers are described as veiling their purple and plumes, as well as their ermine. This suggests a deliberate effort to hide their noble qualities or social status. The use of the word "veiling" emphasizes the intentional concealment.

The courtiers are depicted as smiling while requesting alms at imposing doors. This contrasts their outward presentation with their actions, which are often associated with humility and need. The irony lies in their ability to evoke sympathy or charity despite their seemingly noble backgrounds.

The last lines of the poem add another layer of irony. The courtiers continue to smile even as people walk barefoot upon their golden floor. This juxtaposition suggests that the courtiers, despite their outward appearance of nobility, find nobility and humility in the presence of others, even those who seem less fortunate.


  • Appearance vs. Reality: The poem explores the contrast between the courtiers' outward appearance and their true qualities, emphasizing the deceptive nature of appearances.
  • Humility: The poem highlights the theme of humility by portraying courtiers who, despite their noble backgrounds, engage in acts of humility such as requesting alms and smiling even when treated with disregard.
  • Irony: The poem employs irony by presenting courtiers who are expected to display grandeur and luxury but instead act in ways that demonstrate humility and simplicity.


  • Deceptiveness: The poem conveys a sense of how appearances can be deceiving and invites readers to question preconceived notions about others.
  • Humility and Empathy: The poem evokes feelings of humility and empathy by portraying courtiers who engage in humble acts and find nobility in unexpected places.

Literary Devices

  • Irony: The poem employs irony by presenting courtiers in rags who exhibit qualities of humility, even when approached with disregard.
  • Imagery: The imagery of courtiers dressed in rags, veiling their luxurious attire, and walking barefoot on a golden floor creates a vivid and contrasting visual experience.

Discussion Question

How does the poem challenge conventional notions of nobility and opulence? How does the use of irony enhance the message about appearances and humility?

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