As imperceptibly as grief

September 2, 2006 at 4:26 pm 2 comments

Emily Dickinson


As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away, –
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone, –
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

And thus, without a wing,
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.

It’s the first week of September, the end of the summer term, and Philadelphia, right on cue, has turned damp and chilly. What better way to mark the season’s passing than with this exquisite Dickinson poem.

I am always awed by the fragility of this poem, by its “light escape into the beautiful”. Every time I read it, I have this image in my head of the summer as a white-sailed yacht, slipping gently away over the horizon, a vision made even more incredible by the fact that Dickinson conjures it with the use of that single ‘keel’ in the last stanza.

But more than anything else I admire this poem because of the way it perfectly blends a sense of unspecified regret with a calm appreciation of the glory of the seasons. The way it captures that first apprehension of the season’s passing – the feeling of having lost something, but also of being connected to a larger voyage.

Finally, it is impossible for me to say enough about the brilliance of that first stanza. Dickinson manages to cue both sorrow and betrayal, though the logic of the words themselves implies the passing of one and the absence of the other. But Dickinson also manages to say something very profound about the nature of grief, the meaning of betrayal; about how suffering does not simply vanish overnight, but is slowly eroded away, so that it becomes impossible to say exactly when and where we ceased to be unhappy, and we come too late to the realisation that our sorrows no longer oppress us. And about how even this stealing away of our grief would be a loss, how even this would leave us feeling cheated, if it were not for the gentleness with which, by slow degrees, nature slips these regrets from our pocket. Dickinson’s genius is that she inverts this idea, taking it for granted, and applying it to her description of the summer as though it were a thought that was obvious to everyone. A lesser poet might have compared the passing of sorrow to the passing of summer, Dickinson has sensibility enough to reverse that comparison, and it’s this that makes this such a sublime poem.


Entry filed under: Emily Dickinson, English, Falstaff.

How Many Devils Can Dance on the Point… Autumn Day

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ravi Kopra  |  December 17, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    After great pain a formal feeling comes–
    The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
    The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
    And yesterday–or centuries before?

    The feet, mechanical, go round
    A wooden way
    Of ground, or air, or ought,
    Regardless grown,
    A quartz contentment, like a stone.

    This is the hour of lead
    Remembered if outlived,
    As freezing persons recollect the snow–
    First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

    In Urdu Translation

    kisi baRay gum k baad
    ek saada si mehyoosi aati hai
    aisa lagata hai jaisay
    ehasas pur takalluf kabar ban gayay hon
    dukhi dil poochta hai –
    kya jesus nay dukh nahin saha?
    kal ya sadiion pehlay?

    paon apnay aap hi
    kisi takhti k rastay par chaltay hain
    zameen pe, hawaa main
    jahan bhi chlana chaahen
    kisi ki parvah nahin kartay
    jaisay gaar ho sukuun main

    yeh waqat guzar kar nahin guzarta
    hamesha yaad aata hai zindgi main –
    jaisay sardi main maray log
    baraf ko yaad kartay hain –
    pehaly thund, phir nasha sa
    aur phir ek dum beparwah.

    -tr. Ravi Kopra

  • 2. Ravi Kopra  |  December 17, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    As imperceptibly as grief
    The summer lapsed away, –
    Too imperceptible, at last,
    To seem like perfidy.


    jaisay dukh bina jaanay
    humain aa lagtaa hai,
    garmian bhi waisay hi
    bina jaanay nikal gayeeN.

    lakin akhir main aisay
    andaaz say nikleeN
    k dhokha dena
    chupa na sakeeN.

    -tr. Ravi Kopra


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