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.

heaven!

Going to heaven!
I don’t know when,
Pray do not ask me how,—
Indeed, I ’m too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to heaven!—
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the shepherd’s arm!

Perhaps you ’re going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first,
Save just a little place for me
Close to the two I lost!
The smallest “robe” will fit me,
And just a bit of “crown”;
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home.

I ’m glad I don’t believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I ’d like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Min An, Pexels.

There are so many interesting things happening in this poem. First off, it’s unlike many, many other Dickinson poems about death in that it’s neither dark and foreboding nor eagerly anticipating death.

Secondly, the speaker is addressing someone. She exclaims at the beginning, and then asks not to be asked more questions, as if she’s responding to someone who’s just posed one. Who is the speaker talking to? To an actual person? To herself? It seems impossible to say. There are lots of exclamation marks in that first stanza, too, to underscore her astonishment at being asked this question–and admittedly, if there is an actual person posing it, it’s a weird one. The speaker says it sounds “dim,” uncertain, suggesting that the idea of heaven is a long way off, but then acknowledges that “it must be done.” It’s a funny sort of resignation. Oh, heaven? Yeah, I guess we have to do that. Okay.

The second stanza begins humorously. “Perhaps you’re going too!” Is this an Emily burn? Hey, maybe you’ll eventually make it to heaven! “Who knows?” But then the tone abruptly shifts to seriousness, with the speaker asking the person she’s addressing to save a place for her near two loved ones who have preceded her in death. But then again, she shifts tone, and starts pondering her dress–what to wear to heaven? Just a bit of robe, just a small crown. It’s as if she’s trying to distract herself from the thought of her losses.

But she can’t stave off such thoughts for long. In the third stanza, she insists that she doesn’t believe, because she wants to stay here to “look a little more/At such a curious Earth!” It’s as if she’s an observer from another world looking in from the outside. As if, perhaps, despite her insistence to the contrary, she (and all of us) belong to heaven and are only sojourning here. And then she shifts again, back to her lost loved ones. She’s glad that they believed, even if she doesn’t. The speaker ends with a stark image of loss, of an autumn afternoon when she buried them.

There is a lot going on here–the poem is a swirl of emotions and images. It mimics the turmoil in the speaker’s own mind, the uncertainty of her thoughts. It seems as if she’s grappling with the notion of mortality and immortality. She doesn’t want to think about them, and yet can’t keep herself from doing so.

Heaven below

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.
God’s residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson often seems to be dancing on or just over the edge of blasphemy. Heaven on earth? God’s residence here, among us? Yet there’s a lot of food for thought here, and in some ways the thrust of this poem is theologically extremely sound. We must make the world we wish for, and if heaven is our aspiration, well, that means we have our work cut out for us. If we don’t find heaven now, will we ever? And if we don’t recognize the divine in the midst of the profane, how will we ever recognize it at all?