Sleep is supposed to be,
By souls of sanity,
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be,
By people of degree,
The breaking of the day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall aurora be
East of eternity;

One with the banner gay,
One in the red array,—
That is the break of day.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Tobias Bjorkli on Pexels.

Sleep is supposed to be simply shutting our eyes. But instead, it is a journey to another world–a station from whence one can depart to anywhere. The first couple of stanzas, in true Emily fashion, seem simple enough.

Then we move farther into the poem. Morning is supposed to be daybreak. So far so good–but Dickinson interrupts us, shifts gears. Instead of telling us what morning actually is to her, she says that it hasn’t happened. It is always tempting to suppose that she’s talking about death. But maybe here she’s talking about resurrection instead–morning is the thing that comes after every night, but true morning is the life after death.

It is completely frustrating interesting to me that I can spend a whole flipping year with Dickinson and still not really know what she’s talking about. I wonder if she’s playing with me, with her readers. Did she write in a kind of shorthand purely for herself? Or was she fully aware of playing with her someday readers, writing in riddles to tease us?

In which we discover that we are adequate.


OF bronze and blaze
The north, to-night!
So adequate its forms,
So preconcerted with itself,
So distant to alarms,—
An unconcern so sovereign
To universe, or me,
It paints my simple spirit
With tints of majesty,
Till I take vaster attitudes,
And strut upon my stem,
Disdaining men and oxygen,
For arrogance of them.
My splendors are menagerie;
But their competeless show
Will entertain the centuries
When I am, long ago,
An island in dishonored grass,
Whom none but daisies know.

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: The opening sentence is gorgeous, almost overwhelmingly beautiful–and then in the next sentence she hits us with how “adequate” its forms are, and I kind of snort-laugh. “The aurora borealis is amazing and beautiful and….adequate!”

Pam: This. What is even happening? I just read through it. I feel like I’ve misplaced brain cells. I have no idea what is happening here. You’re absolutely right about the gorgeous imagery and then the strange turn to “adequate.” And then we have “preconcerted,” which apparently means “arranged or organized in advance.” How can you be preconcerted with yourself? “When I am, long ago.” What even. I have lost all powers of language.

Brenna: Ohhhh, I love that! That is my favorite part!

Pam: Tell me what it means!!

Brenna: I don’t know?? But I have THOUGHTS.

Pam: I am waiting patiently, long ago.

Brenna: Okay, so she says that, as mighty and important as the aurora has made her feel in the first stanza, she will eventually die (because Emily Dickinson), while the northern lights will continue.

Pam: The island is her gravestone! Okay. That pieced it together. I’m glad you’re here with a guidebook.

Brenna: And then she does the amazing thing. She starts out using the future tense: “When I am…” And then she whips it around within the same sentence to the past tense: When she is dead long ago, i.e. when she has been dead for a long time. She’s seeing her own past in the future. Emily is badass.

Pam: She’s looking forward to a time when her grave is in forgotten grass, where only flowers know about her.

Brenna: Yes! When she is pushing daisies. When she has become daisies. I love the time warp in that second stanza. I think it’s glorious. Emily Dickinson is so metal.

Pam: Which, of course, hasn’t happened yet! Such a strange little moebius strip of reasoning that cannot become true because of her postmortem poetic fame. She will never have that prediction come true, most likely, but the poem (which outlives her) keeps this premonition alive and also incorrect.

Brenna: Well-said!

Pam: I also think it’s glorious now that you’ve explained it.

Brenna: Isn’t it fantastic?

Pam: She’s doing this earlier in the poem, too! “Till I take vaster attitudes, / And strut upon my stem”: when, in the future, I am an actual flower.
She’s conflated with the aurora borealis, too! It’s eternal; it’s not going anywhere. She’s imagining a future where she is dead and her remains have become flowers, which are also impermanent, but they reseed and come back over and over again.

Brenna: And like the aurora, she will be incorporeal. It’s a pretty amazing poem. Pam. PAM. Are we starting to……UNDERSTAND Emily Dickinson??

Pam: I feel like if I agree that we understand her, we will be cursed.

Brenna: That’s not good. We are in TROUBLE. No, WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND YOU, EMILY. Haunt us no more!!

Pam: Just looking at the two poems previous this one in the book–no, I do not understand her. Yet!

Brenna: Wait….I said we’re starting to understand her. I qualified it. We are not cursed. Whew!!

Pam: Qualifiers are important! Walking back from the ledge.

Brenna: Walk it back, Pam!!

Pam: We are adequate!

Brenna: We are so adequate. Competelessly adequate. I love how excited she gets about herself in this poem. She takes “vaster attitudes,” “struts,” and disdains men and oxygen. That should be this blog’s tagline. “Disdaining men and oxygen.

Pam: YES. She is feeling her splendors in this poem.

Brenna: They are menagerie! But then once again, nature puts E.D. in her place. SMACK. “You are PUSHING DAISIES.” And why is the grass “dishonored”?

Pam: That’s a good question. Maybe not dishonored the way we think of it, but literally not honored by visitors? Forgotten?

Brenna: This poem raises a really interesting question again–did she want recognition? In some poems it feels as if she’s longing for it. In others, she wants to be “nobody.” In this poem, she goes from being nobody to spendiloquent to nobody again.

Pam: Oh, wonderful question. I wonder, too, if perhaps recognition–the desire for it–is something she grappled with, and poems like these are moves toward accepting her belief that she will not have recognition.

Brenna: Ah, this seems like a good working theory! And she reminds herself that it’s okay, in the grand scheme of things. Nature is what endures. And she does, in the very real biological sense of becoming daisies. But her display is homely and small and forgotten, overlooked, unlike the aurora, which demands attention.

Pam: Yes! What a wonderful thing to pull out. She’s in earthly planes with the homely daisies, and still underneath the splendor of the aurora.

Brenna: She still gets to witness it, or at least be in its presence.

Pam: Amelia just came in and said, “Mommy, tell me what my name is.” I told her. She said, “No, I’m a MYSTERYYYYYY.” So I think she understands Emily better than we do.

Brenna: Emily Dickinson: 20. Pam and Brenna: 2. Amelia: WINNING.

Pam: Are we at 20?

Brenna: 22!

Pam: Holy cow, we’re at 22! 22 Dickinson poems! We’ve gone past blackjack!

Brenna: Our blog can drink!

Pam [flipping through the book]: “A toad can die of light.” What.