Summer’s last rites

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THE GENTIAN weaves her fringes,
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness, 5
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angles are.

It was a short procession,—
The bobolink was there, 10
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing,—
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph, 15
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze, amen!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating poem. Its basic meaning is clear–it’s about the passage of summer into autumn, the beginning of the slow death of the year that somehow creeps up on us every trip around the sun.

The first stanza lays out botanical cues that summer is ending. I had to look up gentian (a flower/herb). I don’t know what to make of the second stanza, with its “below this morning” and being “where the angles are.” Something about the angle of the light, maybe?? No idea on this one.

As a beekeeper, I love the third, middle stanza, with its “aged bee” as the officiant of summer’s funeral. The notion of an aged bee is rich with meaning. At the risk of falling down a bee-geek hole, it’s worth noting that honeybees during the summer live for a matter of weeks, due to the stresses of their constant foraging, but during the winter they can live for months. Ironically, the “harder” time of the year is not their harder time. Still, even a life-span of months hardly seems “aged,” and I suspect Dickinson is using the word ironically to show how quickly summer seems to pass.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker expresses a desire to follow summer to wherever it’s gone, rather than remain for the long winter. Relatable. The line “Summer, sister, seraph” echoes the structure and rhythm of her poem that begins, “I never lost as much but twice.” The penultimate line of that one is “Burglar, banker, father,” and I can’t read this one without hearing echoes of that one, which is also about loss–but of a person rather than a season.

The final stanza of this poem is especially effective. The rhyme scheme, which has been mostly slant up to this point, suddenly disappears. Four-line stanzas abruptly give way to a three-line mock liturgy. The poem, like summer itself, is cut short.


Is bliss, then, such abyss
I must not put my foot amiss
For fear I spoil my shoe?

I ’d rather suit my foot
Than save my boot,
For yet to buy another pair
Is possible
At any fair.

But bliss is sold just once;
The patent lost
None buy it any more.

~emily dickinson

The structure of this one is unusual–a three-line stanza followed by a five-line stanza and then another three-line stanza. What is Dickinson doing? She has such a distinctive poetic style, such a strongly Dickinsonian voice, that people joke you can sing most of her poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” The meter and rhythm are unmistakable.

So when she veers so sharply from her accustomed rhyme and rhythm and meter, what is she doing? What are we meant to think of this? Is she experimenting? Is the abrupt shift in meter and rhythm meant to clue us in to some hidden secret of the poem?

We’re almost halfway through the year, and sometimes I think that with each additional poem of Dickinson’s that I read and respond to, I’m getting farther away from understanding her.

Stop now!


I’m wife; I’ve finished that,
That other state;
I’m Czar, I’m woman now:
It’s safer so.

How odd the girl’s life looks
Behind this soft eclipse!
I think that earth seems so
To those in heaven now.

This being comfort, then
That other kind was pain;
But why compare?
I’m wife! stop there!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: Pam. We already did this one. SIGH

Wait, no. We did not.

Pam: lol

Brenna: I did the one AFTER it.

Pam: Well, I still have no idea what is happening.

Brenna: Okay. “Apocalypse.” !! That’s not ominous.

Pam: END of the WorLd

Brenna: Who the hell titled this poem??

Pam: That is a wonderful question. If she’s wife, what has she finished?

Brenna: Being a little girl. And it’s weird that she finds being a wife “safer.” RUN, EMILY. IT IS NOT SAFE. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON.

Pam: We know that she was not a wife. Am I meant to assume some other narrator? Is she being obscure for the heck of it? Is she a nun? Is she married to God? What is HAPPENING I seriously do not know.

Brenna: She likes to write as if she’s a wife. From a wife’s perspective.

Pam: Why? Please school me.

Brenna: I guess for the reason any poet writes from any other perspective?Also it could be a God poem. Or a dude poem. Either one. I think she must have liked imagining she was married. Imagining is for sure safer.

Pam: Okay, so: she’s wife now. She’s Czar, so she gets to be in charge, unlike in her unwedded state.

Brenna: I think she’s writing from the perspective of a married woman. She’s left behind childhood, girlhood. Where it gets weird for me is her assertion that being a wife is safer.

Pam: Yes! How is this safer?

Brenna: Wives die in childbirth. It’s not safer, Emily!!

Pam: I was just typing that!! Safer economically, perhaps, assuming the husband is a decent provider?

Brenna: Maybe it’s safer because now she’s in a relationship? Now she’s married and no longer searching. She’s a “heart in port,” safe from the tempestuous passion of “wild nights” and from temptation? And then she reflects on how strange childhood looks from her womanly perspective, and that makes sense to me. It’s surreal to take on an adult role. I wonder how many of us ever really feel fully adult. I remember my mom telling me that when she was married with young children, she used to sometimes look around in a daze and wonder where the grownups were.

Pam: The way she describes the two states is very interesting to me. We have wife, czar, woman, and safer vs. that and that other state.

Brenna: Yes! super interesting and weird. And “czar” is a male role. So by becoming a wife she’s become a man? Because she’s joined with a man?

Pam: And that last rhyming couplet is such a childlike thing to say!

Brenna: It is! It’s like she reverts at the end.

Pam: There’s this image of the grownup married woman saying these ridiculously simple rhymes.

Brenna: And I think that’s telling.

Pam: Yes! It subverts the idea that marriage = adult, grownup, more wise. It’s like the person who tells you how incredibly humble they are.

Brenna: “This being comfort, then/ That other kind was pain”. This is a weird thought. “Because marriage is comfort, then it logically follows that childhood was NOT comfort.” It’s like she’s trying to convince herself with bad logic. So there’s this reversal. The wife doth protest too much. She opens with “It’s so great to be a wife!” but then flip flops at the end. “It MUST be great to be a wife because everybody says so and I’m supposed to want this.”

Pam: Yes! We have to wonder who the audience is, if it’s not just the speaker saying these things to convince herself.

Brenna: “But why compare?/ I’m wife! Stop there!” It’s as if, looking back at childhood from her current reality of marriage, which is supposed to be better, she’s trying to tell us that it’s not better. But as a wife, she’s not allowed to say that. She has to make it sound good, but she has serious reservations. She has to shut herself up so she doesn’t say what she’s really thinking. I wonder…is this Emily trying to convince herself that it’s better to remain single??

Pam: Or, at least, to show us that being a wife doesn’t mean that your problems go away.

Brenna: Hell no they do not go away. You just end up with kids who get the plague and then you are stuck at home cleaning things and cooking soup and going out of your mind. Of course it is possible that my current mental state is coloring my reading of this poem… Maybe the speaker is imagining what it’s like to be a wife. She wonders if she’s missing anything. She thinks at first that she is–comfort, stability, a steady relationship to depend on. But as she thinks about it, she realizes what she’s losing.

Pam: Yes! I think this is why the rhyme scheme switches in the last stanza, too.

Brenna: I love reversals in poems. I geek out about this kind of thing.

Pam: She’s exploring in the first two stanzas, and in the last she’s come to a decision–but it’s not the one she expected. This may be why she reverts to this more childlike rhyme scheme; the first two stanzas are still AABB, but they are very, very loose rhymes. You can’t tell me that anybody, even in the 1800s, actually thought that that/state was anything other than a slant rhyme. But we have perfect rhyme in compare/there. Your current mental state is RELEVANT to this poem.

Brenna: I love how you always bring it back to the rhyme scheme. I forget to do that.

Pam: I can’t help but to check the rhyme scheme first every time.
What do you think? Have we done it justice?

Brenna: I think we have done it all the justice we can possibly do it at this moment. Stop there!

In which we are not sure whether this is actually a love poem:


Have you got a brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?

And nobody, knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there;
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there.

Then look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go.

And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life
Some burning noon go dry!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna, haphazardly choosing today’s poem: On page 18, IX strikes me as kind of a weirdo one.”Have you got a brook in your little heart.” WHY DOES THIS MAKE ME LAUGH

Pam: Let me flip over. I’ve lost my book. Give me a minute!0

Brenna: I shall paraphrase for you thusly: Your love is a little brook. It is smol and secret. But in March WATCH OUT, PASSION and other things polite nineteenth-century ladies only speak of via euphemism. But then by August, your love is dried up and DEAD and everything Emily Dickinson writes is about DEATH.

Pam: Oh my goodness. Flipping over now.

Brenna: I may be feeling a little punchy…

Pam: I think punchy is the right way to approach this one.”Have you got a brook in your little heart” Emily what even. Everything is bashful and blushing and trembling!

Brenna: Usually she reserves “little” as an epithet for herself, but here it’s second person. But I still get the feeling she’s talking to/about herself.And if you don’t watch out, you will be Overcome! And then die.When your love is in full flood, it will take out bridges!! Beware!!

Pam: I absolutely think she’s talking about herself, and that’s what cracks me up the most. It’s disguised to look humble and it’s doing the exact opposite. Look at me, I am so dainty and I have this very tiny love, which I am shouting about in a poem!

Brenna: YES. My love is very smol and cute and dainty, but then it gets huge and ragingly powerful and it will TAKE YOU DOWN. And then it dies.

Pam: Are you also reading the torrents of March as just inexpressibly huge lust? Is that just me? I’m honestly equating this with the animals going twitterpated in Bambi. Spring = birds and bees!

Brenna: I am reading this exactly the same way. Spring=innocent puppy love. March=lust. It will destroy you and everything else in its path. August=you are OLD and DRIED UP and love is no longer for you. So there!!

Pam: Exactly!!We have the cold in this poem, too! The snows hurrying from the hills. What were you saying about cold in Dickinson’s poems?

Brenna: Cold=passion. Aha!! It still holds true! My Cold Theory of Dickinson!!

Pam: It’s an I Am Very Special poem.

Brenna: It is! It strikes me that rather a lot of her poems are “I Am Very Special” poems. Like Poe, who wrote that from earliest childhood he was totally and completely unlike anyone else. There is so freaking much exceptionalism in poetry. Maybe just American poetry?? Or maybe white people poetry…

Pam: I honestly think it’s just a poet characteristic. I’m not going to say I’m also like that, but I’m also like that. I think if you didn’t have such an inflated sense of self-worth, you’d probably choose a saner career than poet.

Brenna: Is that why we write? Then how do we explain the constant and crippling self-doubt?? She had it too! Why are we paradoxes???

Pam: I think being a writer makes one automatically a parodox. So what do we do with this wilting flower?

Brenna: Hmmm…..Well, let me ask you this– Do you have a brook in YOUR little heart, hmm? Why is this even in the “Love” section? We’re only assuming it’s love because it’s in that section, but this could be ANYTHING. I don’t know what to do with this weirdo poem. Maybe we post it along with a single question–what on earth does she mean??

Pam: Oh, goodness. I don’t have a brook in my heart. My heart is composed primarily of lost socks and pizza.

Brenna: I want to laugh and cry at the same time, that is so true. Lost socks and pizza….yes….It’s the freaking METER. The meter is what makes this poem so very especially weird. Meter and rhyme scheme. It sounds like one of those horrible poems written just to rhyme.

Pam: YES. The poem bends itself in knots to fit the rhyme.

At this point, dear reader, we just gave up.

Almost!: Emily Dickinson on FOMO

WITHIN my reach!
I could have touched!
I might have chanced that way!
Soft sauntered through the village,
Sauntered as soft away!
So unsuspected violets
Within the fields lie low,
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago.

~Emily Dickinson

One of the loveliest moments you get to have as an English teacher is the one when you tell your students that, now that they’ve learned and mastered the rules, they get to break the rules. This is a lovely example of rule-breaking. Dickinson’s incomplete sentences here are perfect. The first line has no verb. The second has no object. The fourth and fifth have no subject. She’s breaking things all over the place. After setting up the rhythm and maintaining it for four lines, she disrupts it in the fifth. The rhyme scheme is broken, too–and it can hardly help but be, in a nine-line poem. Who writes a nine-line poem??

Dickinson never identifies the subject of the poem, either. We really have no idea who or what was within her reach. She compares it/them to violets–but we don’t know much else. This also feels like a massive rule-breaking. If you’re going to write words, people should be able to read them and know what you’re talking about, right? I mean, it’s Dickinson, so this could definitely be a poem about death….But.

On second read, the poem strikes me as masterful. Dickinson breaks all these rules, and the incompleteness of the rhyme scheme, the missing words, the lack of a clearly identified subject, all underscore with a quiet sort of fierceness the idea of missing something, and being incomplete or unfulfilled as a result.

Emily Dickinson FOMO.

Okay, maybe not really that, but what the poem seems to be about, more than whoever or whatever the speaker just missed, is the sobering reality that life is full of missed opportunities. Maybe the speaker doesn’t name her subject because, like the rest of us, she doesn’t know what she’s missed.