It can’t be summer,—that got through;
It ’s early yet for spring;
There ’s that long town of white to cross
Before the blackbirds sing.

It can’t be dying,—it ’s too rouge,—
The dead shall go in white.
So sunset shuts my question down
With clasps of chrysolite.

~Emily Dickinson
Olivine, which is maybe chrysolite?
Image via Wikipedia.

“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.


A something in a summer’s day,
As slow her flambeaux burn away,
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon,—
An azure depth, a wordless tune, 5
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer’s night
A something so transporting bright,
I clap my hands to see;

Then veil my too inspecting face, 10
Lest such a subtle, shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me.

The wizard-fingers never rest,
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed; 15

Still rears the East her amber flag,
Guides still the sun along the crag
His caravan of red,

Like flowers that heard the tale of dews,
But never deemed the dripping prize 20
Awaited their low brows;

Or bees, that thought the summer’s name
Some rumor of delirium
No summer could for them;

Or Arctic creature, dimly stirred 25
By tropic hint,—some travelled bird
Imported to the wood;

Or wind’s bright signal to the ear,
Making that homely and severe,
Contented, known, before 30

The heaven unexpected came,
To lives that thought their worshipping
A too presumptuous psalm.

~Emily Dickinson
“As slow her flambeaux burn away”…….

I’ve been studiously avoiding this poem for a while because the syntax baffled me in places and I didn’t know what to say about it. I’ve read and re-read it, thinking that I’d write about it, and every time, I came up short. Suddenly, as I’m staring at the end of summer and the start of the school year, I realize that maybe my wordlessness is the point.

Despite the fact that this is a long poem by Dickinson’s usual standards, she too seems to have trouble pinning a word to the experience she’s describing. For the first three stanzas, she repeats the words “a something,” as if she’s struggling to say what she means–or is acknowledging that some things can’t be trapped by language, affixed on paper like pinned insects.

This sense of vagueness continues through the rest of the poem, maintained by words like “veil,” “subtle,” “rumor,” “dimly.” The funky syntax in places helps to sustain this vagueness, too. I’m still not sure exactly how to parse the eighth stanza–“no summer could for them”?!? Really, Emily? But I think now that all this verbal meandering and twisting out of reach is extremely intentional. Dickinson is recreating summer in the form of a poem.

There’s something ephemeral about this sweet hot season–it slips away before we’ve completely made sense of it, fully enjoyed it. Like the poem, with its longer-than-usual length but shorter-than-usual stanzas, summer seems both long and short. And like the poem, it is hazily dreamlike, magical. The three-line stanzas begin to feel incantatory. Dickinson uses language like “shimmering” and “wizard-fingers.” The summer’s day is described as simultaneously solemn, ecstatic, and transporting. It’s a religious experience in the last stanza, with words like “heaven,” “worshipping,” and “psalm.”

I wonder if what Dickinson is doing here is not so much trying to define summer as capture our human experience of it. It is a magical season, a holy one–but then, they all are. Summer is elusive, fleeting. As I read through the poem yet another time, I realize that this is one that will continue to echo in my consciousness as I watch my children swimming underneath the August stars, running wild on the dark dew-soaked grass.

My new favorite poem


I FOUND the phrase to every thought
I ever had, but one;
And that defies me,—as a hand
Did try to chalk the sun

To races nurtured in the dark;—
How would your own begin?
Can blaze be done in cochineal,
Or noon in mazarin?

~Emily Dickinson

I love this poem. It’s not one I’d ever encountered before. I’m finding as we progress through this project of a Dickinson poem a day that it’s the poems I’ve never heard of that strike me most. It’s not just because they sound fresh to me–I think it’s because they’re a bit quirkier or more philosophical or less easily categorized than her poems that are most commonly anthologized.

This poem strikes me as brilliant, and as part of a much larger trend that runs through many of Dickinson’s poems. This isn’t the first of her poems I’ve read this year that attempts to express the inexpressible–not in terms of pinning it down, but in terms of recounting the human experience of dealing with the knowledge that there are thoughts, emotions, ideas that we will never be entirely capable of articulating.

One of my grad school professors said during a lecture that thought is impossible without language. I disagree, and I think Dickinson would, too. This poem is proof. She’s found the phrase to every thought–except that one tricksy one that keeps eluding her. The second stanza, with its juxtaposition of abstract words with paint colors, seems to expand the argument–can we really express anything accurately via our art?

There’s perhaps no point in attempting to express the inexpressible. What Dickinson does is express what it feels like to stand in the face of that chasm in her knowledge. I love, too, that she includes a prompt in her own poem, a question to the reader. How would yours begin?