As stars that drop anonymous

Superfluous were the sun
When excellence is dead;
He were superfluous every day,
For every day is said

That syllable whose faith
Just saves it from despair,
And whose “I ’ll meet you” hesitates—
If love inquire, “Where?”

Upon his dateless fame
Our periods may lie,
As stars that drop anonymous
From an abundant sky.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

If excellence is dead, then the sun itself is superfluous, the speaker posits in the first stanza. In fact, excellence is dead, so the sun is superfluous, she argues.

The dense middle stanza touches on faith and doubt–a faith just barely pried from the jaws of doubt, it seems. Is it excellence itself the speaker doubts? Or the excellence of a particular person or being or power? We cannot know for sure.

The final stanza exchanges the famous fallen excellence and the sun for anonymous yet numberless stars, a different kind of light salvaged from the darkness.

a missing friend

I had a guinea golden;
I lost it in the sand,
And though the sum was simple,
And pounds were in the land,
Still had it such a value
Unto my frugal eye,
That when I could not find it
I sat me down to sigh.

I had a crimson robin
Who sang full many a day,
But when the woods were painted
He, too, did fly away.
Time brought me other robins,—
Their ballads were the same,—
Still for my missing troubadour
I kept the “house at hame.”

I had a star in heaven;
One Pleiad was its name,
And when I was not heeding
It wandered from the same.
And though the skies are crowded,
And all the night ashine,
I do not care about it,
Since none of them are mine.

My story has a moral:
I have a missing friend,—
Pleiad its name, and robin,
And guinea in the sand,—
And when this mournful ditty,
Accompanied with tear,
Shall meet the eye of traitor
In country far from here,
Grant that repentance solemn
May seize upon his mind,
And he no consolation
Beneath the sun may find.

~Emily Dickinson
A guinea. Image via Wikipedia.

My edition of Dickinson’s poems includes a note after this one that suggests it may have been sent to a friend who was delinquent in responding to letters. It has a teasing tone, referring to the absent friend as a “traitor” after comparing the friend at length to a lost guinea, a flown robin, and a wandering star.

What really strikes me about this poem is how long it is. By Dickinsonian terms, this is practically an epic. There’s something touching in this gesture, in the idea that Emily would write a longer poem to tease a friend than to examine the depths of her own soul. She reportedly would bake for friends, including poems along with the food, and fully expecting the food to be more appreciated.

If this poem was included in a letter to a friend, imagine being that friend. I wonder if Dickinson’s correspondents appreciated the words they were receiving as anything more than mere letters–if they had any inkling that the person writing to them was squirreling away packets of poetry that would one day change the literary world.

like flakes, like stars

They dropped like flakes, they dropped like stars,
Like petals from a rose,
When suddenly across the June
A wind with fingers goes.

They perished in the seamless grass,—
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

What a shift this is from some of the other Dickinson death poems I’ve read so far this month! Unlike the God who lets children perish unremarked, the God of this poem remembers every face among those who have died. There must have been so much going on inside Dickinson’s head at any given time. I have to wonder if her poetry was an overpressure valve, a way to let out some of the bottled thought before she imploded.

I chose this poem for today not because of the death, though, or the theology, but for the mention of falling stars. The Geminid meteor shower is beginning. You can read about it here. It will be peaking this weekend, and while the waning full moon will make it harder to see meteors, some should be visible nonetheless, and the clear winter air will make up in part for the brightness of the moon.

A meteor is a strange and wondrous thing. Some no bigger than grains, they streak the sky, their death-throes moments of beauty and awe. Each trail of light is the flaming disintegration of a unique piece of matter that is no more. How like soldiers falling. How like a thousand, thousand deaths.

But there is so much beauty in this destruction. Each fall is a flash of wonder, a shred of insight into the workings of the deep heavens.

I hope you find some magic in the night sky.

Out of joint

ARCTURUS is his other name,—
I ’d rather call him star!
It ’s so unkind of science
To go and interfere!

I pull a flower from the woods,—
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath,
And has her in a class.

Whereas I took the butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in cabinets,
The clover-bells forgot.

What once was heaven, is zenith now.
Where I proposed to go
When time’s brief masquerade was done,
Is mapped, and charted too!

What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I ’m ready for the worst,
Whatever prank betides!

Perhaps the kingdom of Heaven’s changed!
I hope the children there
Won’t be new-fashioned when I come,
And laugh at me, and stare!

I hope the father in the skies
Will lift his little girl,—
Old-fashioned, naughty, everything,—
Over the stile of pearl!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

Let’s do another prompt! Because it’s NaNo season, and that’s how my brain is operating, apparently..

What I love about this poem is the way it articulates a sneaking suspicion that many of us have–that we were born in the wrong time, that our attitudes and priorities are so different from those of the majority that we’re not sure we belong here.

So your prompt is this–pick a character (sure, you could choose your MC, but what if you chose the villain?) and write about their favorite time in history that isn’t their own. Why does it appeal to them? Do they feel like they’d belong better there? What does this out-of-jointness say about them, and how does it affect their actions? dress? attitudes? behaviors? You might unlock something really interesting.

Seeking Neptune

SHE went as quiet as the dew
From a familiar flower.
Not like the dew did she return
At the accustomed hour!

She dropt as softly as a star 5
From out my summer’s eve;
Less skillful than Leverrier
It’s sorer to believe!

~Emily Dickinson
Neptune, via

Okay, so I fell down a rabbit hole with this one. Obviously we’re talking about someone who’s dead and missed, but I had no idea who Leverrier was. Turns out, he’s the French astronomer who predicted the existence and location of Neptune via its effects on Uranus. His area of expertise was “celestial mechanics,” which is a phrase so rife with possibility it’s going to haunt me for a long time.

This Leverrier reference deepens my whole understanding of this poem. In the first stanza, the departed one is described in earthly terms, as something small and ephemeral and unremarkable–she was “quiet” and “like the dew” “from a familiar flower.” Even the hour is “accustomed.” The scale of this stanza is small and expected.

It’s in the second stanza that we really see the importance of this unnamed woman and the effect of her absence on the speaker. She dropped “as softly as a star”–though still quiet, she is now described in not earthly but celestial terms, and has gone from the scale of a dewdrop to a sun.

I think the speaker is comparing herself to Leverrier here, despite the lack of any kind of subject for this clause. She is less skillful that the astronomer who could predict something unseen by the way it affects something known, but her predicament is more dire. The missing loved one, like the unseen Neptune, will forever shift the speaker’s world in its orbit.


I stepped from plank to plank
So slow and cautiously;
The stars about my head I felt,
About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch,—
This gave me that precarious gait
Some call experience.

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating little poem. The central metaphor seems like a nautical one, but is the speaker referencing a pier? a ship? Without specifying, she still conveys a sense of precariousness. It sounds as if she’s up high–“the stars about my head I felt”–or at least feels as if she is, balanced above the sea. In just a few short lines, Dickinson manages to convey that tentative balancing act.

There’s something lovely about the notion of having one’s head in the stars, and I can’t help but think that Dickinson intends us to think this in addition to giving a sense of great height and precariousness. And the idea of feeling the stars…that is simply magical.

In the second stanza, the speaker conveys her uncertainty–she is inching forward, not knowing if’when she will lose her footing. It is this inching, this tentative advance, she says, that gives her the “precarious gait/Some call experience.”

How often do we look at those around us who are playing it safe and assume that they know what they’re doing, that they somehow “have it all together” because they’re not falling, when all they’re doing is inching along? Is it better to be cautious or to plunge forward into life, come what may?