“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.
There’s a lovely quality of waiting to this poem–the anticipation of something beautiful and familiar, something expected and consistent. Spring is like that–we can depend upon it. It always comes, bringing with it its usual cast of characters. Though there may be fluctuations from year to year, it always arrives essentially on time.
Dickinson absolutely crams this poem with personification–it’s everywhere, in almost every line. The red and white ladies are probably specific plants she’s thinking of, but they could be any red and white spring blooms. I like how the poem ends with the notion of the earth itself not being overwhelmed by anticipation, as we human creatures often are when spring is near. The landscape is “still,” the wood “nonchalant.” Nature always trusts that spring is coming. It’s we humans who forget that, who get overwhelmed, distracted, who lose hope. But nature waits, patiently, knowing that all things arrive in their season.
This is peak Dickinson. This is perhaps The Most Emily Poem of all time. For starters, it’s a riddle. Dickinson piles on question after question, never answering them. There’s also a lot of exclaiming and rapture about nature. She mentions robins. She mentions bees. She even describes bees as “debauchee of dews,” a phrase she uses in another poem, the better-known “I taste a liquor never brewed.”
There are lots of unanswerable questions, lots of breathless delightings in the glories of nature. There are oodles of gorgeous and quirky descriptions: “how many dew,” “astonished boughs,” “withes of supple blue,” and on and on. There’s an obscure references–what is an “Alban house”? Is she talking about Scotland? Why?? Or is she referencing the saint? Again, why?? And, of course, in true Dickinsonian fashion, the poem ends in death–with the promise of resurrection.
The lilacs are browning, their heady fragrance now a memory. How quickly flowers pass! Now the peonies are tight buds atop long green stalks, waiting. Lilies and irises are a promise only, thickets of green spikes.
The wildflowers, though, are hardier things, despite being smaller and seeming so delicate. Daisies are blooming in the field now. Dandelions and Queen Anne’s lace and all those little white and purple and yellow things I cannot name will flourish all summer long. But they, too, will give way to winter. Best to hold on to the beauty of these spring days as tightly as possible.
One of the biggest surprises for me of this project has been discovering how many of Dickinson’s poems have been set to music. This one is no exception–there’s a choral version, apparently arranged for middle school choir by a middle school teacher. There’s also a more operatic version, which you can listen to here, if you’re so inclined.
As I read through the poem, I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s one I feel like I need to discuss with somebody. The first two stanzas make sense to me, but the last two…..I get lost on “If summer were an axiom.” If summer were easily quantifiable/understandable? Why “snow” if we’re talking about summer? And who are the “sapphire fellows” in the final stanza? Are they birds? Pieces of the blue sky? I’m not sure what to make of it, but the overall feeling seems clear–the world is a beautiful place, magical even. Maybe we don’t need to quantify it in order to appreciate it–and maybe that’s what Dickinson is doing with her poem, weaving language in an unquantifiable way in order to mimic the inexplicable beauties of nature.
The whole poem has the feel of an impressionist painting. Splashes of words create an emotional response, even if/though individual words might not make a ton of sense out of context.
Butterfly season has begun. The little pale-violet moths appeared first, their color scarcely a whisper above white. Next, a larger orange and black-veined butterfly, and then a black one with shimmering blue spots. How ephemeral they are, how delicate–the wind or a small bird’s beak can destroy them. Yet they persist, somehow, eternal despite their fragility. Their coming feels momentous as the arrival of a queen after winter’s frigid dry air and short days. When they disappear into an impossibly blue sky, are they ever really gone, or do they transcend all of it, this warming spring day, this greening field, this world perched forever on the brinks of seasons?