Posts filed under ‘Emily Dickinson’

She rose to his requirement

Emily Dickinson


She rose to his requirement, dropped
The playthings of her life
To take the honorable work
Of woman and of wife.

If aught she missed in her new day,
Of amplitude, or awe,
Or first prospective, or the gold
In using wore away,

It lay unmentioned, as the sea
Develops pearl and weed,
But only to himself is known,
The fathoms they abide.

It’s been over a year since we ran a Dickinson poem, so I thought it was about time.

I don’t know where to begin to praise this poem. I love the subversion of the message – the way the opening stanza loudly dismisses the “playthings of her life” and celebrates the “honorable work / of woman and of wife” only to have the second stanza make disappointment and suffocation seem almost inevitable. I love the arc of the poem – the first stanza rising, the second stanza losing momentum, leveling off, and the third dropping quietly to the bottom of the sea. I love the conciseness of it, the precision of the word choices (“amplitude, or awe”, “pearl and weed” “abide”), that startling ‘himself’ in the penultimate line that always takes my breath away.  And I love the music of the poem, the rhythmic perfection that makes the end rhymes (awe, away; weed, abide) seem entirely natural, the way the opening line of each stanza is a shift in gears, the subdued gentleness of those last lines with their sense of something coming softly to rest.


March 5, 2008 at 5:18 am 3 comments

As imperceptibly as grief

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.


September 2, 2006 at 4:26 pm 2 comments


Emily Dickinson


My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Just realised (to my horror) that we've got through some 50 + posts on this blog without including a single Dickinson. This will not do.

Parting (also called 'My life closed twice before its close') is quintessential Dickinson – the short, swift lines a miracle of perfection, that unforgettable sentence that the poem closes with. Dickinson's poems are like diamonds – melted to translucent hardness by an eternity of fire her voice has a beauty that is at once exact and timeless – one feels the urge to hold her lines in one's hand and watch the light reflect off them in a million planes.

March 22, 2006 at 4:48 pm 4 comments