Wonderful rotation

Frequently the woods are pink,
Frequently are brown;
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town.

Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see,
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be.

And the earth, they tell me,
On its axis turned,—
Wonderful rotation
By but twelve performed!

~Emily Dickinson
Image by Valentin Antonucci via Pexels.

Another wonderfully Emily poem. The first stanza is completely comprehensible. Spring, autumn, and winter come again and again. The cycles of nature repeat. So far so good.

The second stanza gets more riddle-y. “Oft a head is crested” that the speaker is used to seeing. What is the head? Is it the head of an actual person, or is she talking about something else? Probably something else, because often there’s a cranny where it used to be. I’m not sure exactly what the “head” here is, but it’s still clear she’s talking about change over time. Often she sees something familiar, but as often it’s gone.

“And the earth, they tell me, / On its axis turned” is a wonderful way of capturing the feeling we all have at the swift passage of time. The speaker describes herself as outside the common knowledge, needing to be told that this magic of change is the work of the world turning. This “Wonderful rotation” is performed by only twelve–the months.

I love the riddling quality of this poem, all the little nuances of the speaker’s character, her awed response to the change of seasons that most of us generally take completely for granted. It seems a fitting poem for the second-to-last day of the year.

Ancestor of dawn

The mountain sat upon the plain
In his eternal chair,
His observation omnifold,
His inquest everywhere.

The seasons prayed around his knees,
Like children round a sire:
Grandfather of the days is he,
Of dawn the ancestor.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Aron Visuals, Pexels.

My favorite Dickinson poems are the ones like this–close observations of nature couched in fresh language, glimpses into the way Dickinson saw the world around her. She had a way of noticing, of really seeing what was happening in the natural world, and according it its proper importance. She doesn’t put human beings squarely at the center of the universe, as is the human tendency. Of course, she anthropomorphizes like all get out, but there’s an understanding in her observations of birds and weather, trees and seasons. I get the sense that she was tapped into something elemental, something visceral, that she took the time to knit a bond with the natural world in a way that many people never do.

The lower metres of the year

The murmuring of bees has ceased;
But murmuring of some
Posterior, prophetic,
Has simultaneous come,—

The lower metres of the year,
When nature’s laugh is done,—
The Revelations of the book
Whose Genesis is June.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I love this one. And not just because of the bees. Dickinson begins with a specific, concrete example–this is the time of year when bees are no longer active. Not visibly, anyway. They are clustered in their hives in cold weather, keeping each other warm with their little bee bodies. While the cold must be stressful, worker bees in winter can live for several months. During the height of a honeyflow in summer, a worker’s lifespan is measured in weeks. So while the cold is a danger, winter is also a time of rest for bees. But I digress. Dickinson says that while the bees’ murmuring has ended, for now, another has started. I tend to think that she’s referring here not to an actual sound, but to the signs of winter itself.

In the second stanza, she continues her expansion from the specific to a bigger, more philosophical idea. In this envisioning of the year, June is the beginning, the Genesis–and why not? After all, it’s totally arbitrary to start the new year in January. The ancient Celts began their new year with Samhain and celebrations of the harvest. You can start the new year anywhere in the circle of the year, really.

So winter, for Dickinson, is “the lower metres of the year.” Nature is done laughing, finished with explosions of vegetation and animal life. It is time for rest, time to withdraw into the hive, to come together for warmth, to while away the coldest, darkest part of the year in communion with ourselves and one another.

Before the ice is in the pools

Before the ice is in the pools,
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow,

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

What we touch the hems of
On a summer’s day;
What is only walking
Just a bridge away;

That which sings so, speaks so,
When there’s no one here,—
Will the frock I wept in
Answer me to wear?

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I love the icy imagery in this poem. As I read through it for the third or fourth time, though, what I’m imagining is an Emily Dickinson blog post-writing bot. It could select from various options, the most common of which would be “this is a poem about death.”

As Emily Dickinson death poems go, however, this is a lovely one. Death is described as “Wonder upon wonder.” My favorite part is the third stanza. The idea that another world lingers just at the edge of our vision is a compelling one. This is definitely not an angsty Dickinson death poem. Death here is like the turning of the seasons, a natural part of the cycle of life, and is couched as such–but with a magical spin.

November left

The night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single star,
That often as a cloud it met
Blew out itself for fear.

The wind pursued the little bush,
And drove away the leaves
November left; then clambered up
And fretted in the eaves.

No squirrel went abroad;
A dog’s belated feet
Like intermittent plush were heard
Adown the empty street.

To feel if blinds be fast,
And closer to the fire
Her little rocking-chair to draw,
And shiver for the poor,

The housewife’s gentle task.
“How pleasanter,” said she
Unto the sofa opposite,
“The sleet than May—no thee!”

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

This is a perfect poem for the start of December, in so many ways. Dickinson begins with the image of a vast night whose darkness is interrupted only by a lone star–and that star is frequently obscured by scudding clouds. With the personification of the star as fearfully extinguishing itself, the poet captures the very human sense of apprehension many of us feel as we approach the darkest day of the year.

November in this poem is like a small, disgruntled creature–it leaves, but then doesn’t, climbing up into the eaves to linger and fret. Just as there is but a lone star in the sky, there is a single living creature out on this dark, cold night–a dog, returning home late, padding almost silently along. Does plush make a sound? The speaker says it does–but it must be a sound that is all but silent. With the wind blowing, how could anyone hear that plush?

In the last two stanzas, the speaker brings us inside a home, where a houswife’s duties are to make sure the blinds are fastened against the night and weather, and to “shiver for the poor.” In the final stanza, the woman addresses “the sofa opposite”–presumably there is someone there? Her spouse? A child? A friend? Maybe a cat or dog?? She remarks that the inclement weather is more pleasant than May. It’s an interesting comment–on one hand, it’s unexpected. Of course May is more pleasant. But for the housewife, May likely means all manner of chores, while the sleet affords her the opportunity to sit, cozy by the fire.

The last line, however–or rather, the last two words–are perplexing. The housewife says that the sleet is more pleasant than May, and then adds, “no thee!” She’s addressing the sofa opposite, and if there’s someone on it, what do we make of this remark? Is she saying, “No, you are more pleasant than May,” or is she saying that sleet is more pleasant than May because there is now “no thee”? She could either be complimenting or issuing a Dickinson-style burn. I really can’t tell which one. What do you think?

Some perfect year

‘Twas just this time, last year, I died.
I know I heard the Corn,
When I was carried by the Farms —
It had the Tassels on —

I thought how yellow it would look —
When Richard went to mill —
And then, I wanted to get out,
But something held my will.

I thought just how Red — Apples wedged
The Stubble’s joints between —
And the Carts stooping round the fields
To take the Pumpkins in —

I wondered which would miss me, least,
And when Thanksgiving, came,
If Father’d multiply the plates —
To make an even Sum —

And would it blur the Christmas glee
My Stocking hang too high
For any Santa Claus to reach
The Altitude of me —

But this sort, grieved myself,
And so, I thought the other way,
How just this time, some perfect year —
Themself, should come to me —

~Emily Dickinson

We’re in the thick of National Novel Writing Month, so let’s do a prompt! If you’re stuck and not sure what to write, imagine your main character speaking from beyond the grave. What would they say? What would they care about–and whom? Or, if that’s way too far outside the bounds of your story, imagine what they would think about when they think about having died. Do they believe in an afterlife? What kind? How does this impact the way they behave and believe in this life?

The egg of forests

To venerate the simple days
Which lead the seasons by,
Needs but to remember
That from you or me
They may take the trifle
Termed mortality!

To invest existence with a stately air,
Needs but to remember
That the acorn there
Is the egg of forests
For the upper air!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

In the first stanza, Dickinson is speaking once again about death. In order to value our days, our moments, even the least amazing of them, we have but to remember that at any point we could be dead.

Thanks, Emily.

The second stanza almost seems at first glance like it belongs to another poem. Not only does it have one less line, but it’s focused now on valuing the world we’re in, the lives we have, because they hold the potential for life beyond this one. If what we have/experience now seems tiny, insignificant, we should remember that the tiny acorn is “the egg of forests” that will one day stretch into “the upper air.”

In a rare Dickinson move, the poet moves from dwelling on how the thought of death should make us value life to the much more optimistic notion that we plant in this life the seeds for the next.

There’s a lot to mull over here. But really, I chose this poem for today because I adore the notion of acorns as little eggs that hatch into entire forests.