I don’t remember when I first encountered this poem–in high school, perhaps, or maybe even middle school. Certainly it was in a textbook, offered up as an example of the work of a famous American poet. Regardless, it’s always rung deeply true for me. There is something about the light on a winter afternoon that’s oppressive, that reminds me of endings and the oncoming rush of darkness.
We’re nearing the darkest day of the year. A week from this Saturday is the winter solstice. After that, the balance will tip back towards light. But for now, darkness gathers its force. For now, winter afternoon sunbeams are a reminder of what has passed, what we have lost, what we will lose. For now, the light is a rare and precious thing, but not without barbs.
“That long town of white” is the phrase that got me from this poem–but the single word “chrysolite” is what sent me down an internet rabbit hole. What is chrysolite? It sounds like a mineral. Here’s what I learned:
There is no such thing as chrysolite. Or rather, no one is entirely sure exactly what chrysolite is. It appears in the Old Testament, is referenced multiple times in the Bible, and seems to refer to what could be a fairly wide array of green minerals.
Chrysolite could be all kinds of things, including olivine and peridot. What I think is fantastic about its use in this poem is that it’s the last word, and it’s unclear exactly what it is. This fits beautifully and perfectly with the message of the poem. Dickinson starts by pondering and getting things wrong. “It can’t be summer,” and “it’s early yet for spring.” It’s as if she can’t pin down exactly where she is. She has some idea, but can’t articulate it precisely.
The poem ends with sunset shutting down her question with “clasps of chrysolite.” It’s perfectly fitting that her unanswerable question–or her question with an unspeakable answer–should be locked down with clasps of some mysterious substance whose exact name and nature we can only guess at. There’s Biblical resonance to chrysolite, there are loads of suggestions and possibilities–but in the end, we, like the speaker of this poem, can’t know exactly what she’s talking about.
I love how often Dickinson engages with the idea of the unknowable, the inexpressible. It’s a side of her I wasn’t aware of when I began this project nearly a year ago.
What a shift this is from some of the other Dickinson death poems I’ve read so far this month! Unlike the God who lets children perish unremarked, the God of this poem remembers every face among those who have died. There must have been so much going on inside Dickinson’s head at any given time. I have to wonder if her poetry was an overpressure valve, a way to let out some of the bottled thought before she imploded.
I chose this poem for today not because of the death, though, or the theology, but for the mention of falling stars. The Geminid meteor shower is beginning. You can read about it here. It will be peaking this weekend, and while the waning full moon will make it harder to see meteors, some should be visible nonetheless, and the clear winter air will make up in part for the brightness of the moon.
A meteor is a strange and wondrous thing. Some no bigger than grains, they streak the sky, their death-throes moments of beauty and awe. Each trail of light is the flaming disintegration of a unique piece of matter that is no more. How like soldiers falling. How like a thousand, thousand deaths.
But there is so much beauty in this destruction. Each fall is a flash of wonder, a shred of insight into the workings of the deep heavens.
Victory comes late, And is held low to freezing lips Too rapt with frost To take it. How sweet it would have tasted, Just a drop! Was God so economical? His table’s spread too high for us Unless we dine on tip-toe. Crumbs fit such little mouths, Cherries suit robins; The eagle’s golden breakfast Strangles them. God keeps his oath to sparrows, Who of little love Know how to starve!
In my senior year of college, I played Emily Dickinson in the play Come Slowly, Eden. This was one of many Dickinson poems that were part of the script. It has stuck with me ever since.
There is something very raw about this poem. It doesn’t follow Dickinson’s usual meter. There’s no real rhyme or slant rhyme. It’s as if the words are pouring forth unchecked.
Yet it’s carefully constructed. Case in point: the phrase “rapt with frost.” “Rapt” here is “spellbound,” “transported,” “silenced.” It’s a homophone, however, for “wrapped,” which works equally well, and the sound of one is surely meant to recall the sound of the other.
Dickinson’s questioning of religion is on full display here, too. The notion of God as “economical” at the expense of compassion is piercing, as is the implication that God “keeps his oath to sparrows” but not human beings.
It’s a powerful poem. There’s something extremely Romantic about it–a spontaneous outpouring of powerful emotions. I love it–and it chills me to the bone.
If I’ve learned anything about Emily Dickinson over the course of this year of an Emily poem a day, it’s that there are vastly more Dickinsons than I realized when I began this project. This is a very specific one of them–the I-got-what-I-thought-I-wanted-and-realized-I-don’t-want-it Dickinson.
On one level, this is simply that. A hungry person, upon having food made available to her, realizes it isn’t as appetizing as she imagined it would be. So often we long for something, only to be disappointed upon receiving it.
But there’s much more going on here. In the third stanza, the speaker metions “Nature’s dining-room,” where she shared her meager crumbs with birds. Upon leaving nature and entering into human habitation, she becomes disconnected from the natural world, from the birds and from the just-enough that nature offers–in other words, just what we need, without the excess that many of us have come to expect from our civilized lives.
How the old mountains drip with sunset, And the brake of dun! How the hemlocks are tipped in tinsel By the wizard sun!
How the old steeples hand the scarlet, Till the ball is full,— Have I the lip of the flamingo That I dare to tell?
Then, how the fire ebbs like billows, Touching all the grass With a departing, sapphire feature, As if a duchess pass!
How a small dusk crawls on the village Till the houses blot; And the odd flambeaux no men carry Glimmer on the spot!
Now it is night in nest and kennel, And where was the wood, Just a dome of abyss is nodding Into solitude!—
These are the visions baffled Guido; Titian never told; Domenichino dropped the pencil, Powerless to unfold.
This is a gorgeous poem, and I don’t want to belabor it with my clumsy explanation–just to point out some of my favorite bits. The “wizard sun” is a beautifully evocative phrase, as is “the odd flambeaux no men carry.” Dickinson manages to paint a picture of a moment which is at once thoroughly, specifically Earthly and yet supernatural. Sunset is a liminal space, the melting of day into night. It is both and yet neither, and this poem captures its many shades well.
Well, this is Christmassy. A poem about dead children, cold in the grave. Sheesh, Emily. What’s most notable about this poem, though, is that it reads like the kid version of “Because I could not stop for Death.” The grave/death is depicted as a kind caretaker, gently tucking them in, protecting them from the harshness of life. It provides safe harbor, a place where nothing can find or harm them.
And then there’s the ending. Dickinson ends this one with a little heresy. Describing the dead children Biblically as “lambs” and “sparrows,” she says that they are “unnoticed by the Father,” contradicting the Biblical passage about how no sparrow falls unnoticed by God, and all the Biblical references to God as loving shepherd who lets no sheep become lost.
What to do with this? Dickinson argues that death is kinder to these lost lambs than God–more attentive and protective. One can only wonder what her preacher father would have thought of such a poem, how Puritan New England would have received it. Maybe Dickinson tied up her poems and tucked them away not because she wanted to remain anonymous, but because she knew her world wasn’t ready for them.