Which, sir, are you?

In lands I never saw, they say,
Immortal Alps look down,
Whose bonnets touch the firmament,
Whose sandals touch the town,—

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A myriad daisies play.
Which, sir, are you, and which am I,
Upon an August day?

~Emily Dickinson

One of the gorgeous things about poetry is that it often unfolds slowly, like a flower. You have to wait for it. Its meanings unfurl gradually, and you can read a poem several times before the magical reading that suddenly unlocks the final key to its meaning.

That has been my experience of this poem. I’ve read it several times while paging through my copy of Dickinson’s poem. Each time, I thought, “I have no idea what to do with this. It’s just Emily being all Emily in the most annoying way–“Big strong man, I am so small!”

Somehow, though, I read it yet again a few days ago and it fell open, like one of those puzzle boxes that unlatch easily the moment you hit on the right spot to press. This poem is Emily being all Emily, but in the best way.

It initially reads as flirty Emily, which is definitely not the Emily we’re all taught to know in English classes. She starts out sounding very innocent and ignorant: “In lands I never saw,” and follows it up with “they say,” suggesting that she’s getting her information secondhand, that she doesn’t probably really know what she’s talking about. She then proceeds to personify the Alps as if she has seen them, right down to the little daisies playing at their feet.

The Alps are “immortal,” they “look down,” their “bonnets touch the firmament,” their feet are “everlasting.” They stand in stark contrast to the “meek” daisies playing around them. The Alps are eternal, the daisies fleeting.

Dickinson ends her poem with a question to an unnamed man: “Which, sir, are you, and which am I,/ Upon an August day?” It’s this question that truly unlocks the meaning of the poem, like that last little piece you press on the puzzle box when you’ve just about given up.

The tone here is so flirty and coy. Of course she’s the daisies and he’s the immortal Alps. She’s flattering him, setting him up.

But.

She poses the question, and it’s the fact that it is a question that unlocks the wonderful subversiveness of this poem. The man is going to read this and think, “I’m the Alps, duh!” But Dickinson’s ending with the question itself makes us ask. Which one is which? The fact that the end of the poem is a question mark opens it up to interpretation. What if he’s the daisies and she’s the Alps? What if the woman is eternal and powerful and not the man?

But again, she ends with a question, and this to me is the real meaning and genius of the poem. The fact that she does ask, that she does set up a potentially subversive answer, is important. The poem isn’t really about who’s the Alps and who’s the daisies–it’s about the fact that she dares to pose this as a question in the first place.

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