aurora

Sleep is supposed to be,
By souls of sanity,
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be,
By people of degree,
The breaking of the day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall aurora be
East of eternity;

One with the banner gay,
One in the red array,—
That is the break of day.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Tobias Bjorkli on Pexels.

Sleep is supposed to be simply shutting our eyes. But instead, it is a journey to another world–a station from whence one can depart to anywhere. The first couple of stanzas, in true Emily fashion, seem simple enough.

Then we move farther into the poem. Morning is supposed to be daybreak. So far so good–but Dickinson interrupts us, shifts gears. Instead of telling us what morning actually is to her, she says that it hasn’t happened. It is always tempting to suppose that she’s talking about death. But maybe here she’s talking about resurrection instead–morning is the thing that comes after every night, but true morning is the life after death.

It is completely frustrating interesting to me that I can spend a whole flipping year with Dickinson and still not really know what she’s talking about. I wonder if she’s playing with me, with her readers. Did she write in a kind of shorthand purely for herself? Or was she fully aware of playing with her someday readers, writing in riddles to tease us?

Sunrise // Sunset

I ’LL tell you how the sun rose,—
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets, 5
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile 10
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars, 15
And led the flock away.

~Emily Dickinson

I’ve read this one many, many times. I like it–it’s a vivid and accurate description of sunrise and sunset. I’ve struggled with what exactly to say about it, since it’s so well-known and seems so straightforward.

Every reading of a poem opens up new possibilities for understanding, and as I sit at my desk in the lean dark hour before sunrise, it occurs to me for the first time that there is an air of the mysterious pervading this seemingly straightforward poem.

Though the speaker begins by declaring that she’ll tell us how the sun rose, her soft exclamation at the end of the second stanza undermines this confidence. She says “That must have been the sun!” as if she’s not entirely sure.

Then, in the next line, she tells us that she doesn’t know how the sun set. She proceeds to tell us exactly how it set. There’s a rich contradiction running through this poem. Does she or doesn’t she know what she’s seeing? In the case of both sunrise and sunset, she tells us that she doesn’t know, but shows us that she does.

What to do with this? Is she just being coy? Or is she saying something here about the human understanding of nature, about our perceptions of reality?

Maybe she’s saying something about the role of the poet, about the power of poetry. She begins by declaring she’ll tell us something, then backpedals to qualify it. She then tells us what she doesn’t know, and proceeds to describe it. Maybe this isn’t a poem about sunrise and sunset–maybe it’s a poem about the power of language to engage the world, to make sense of it, to connect us with the larger universe.

Darkest before dawn

WHEN night is almost done,
And sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the spaces,
It ’s time to smooth the hair

And get the dimples ready, 5
And wonder we could care
For that old faded midnight
That frightened but an hour.

~Emily Dickinson

The morning sky is tinged deep blue. Dawn hasn’t yet breached the eastern horizon. The balance is just beginning to tilt toward autumn. Days are shortening. It seems to happen so quickly–a month ago, wouldn’t the sun have risen by now?

I find myself growing impatient for the sunrise. Suddenly, somehow, we are already in that part of the year when sunlight begins to seem precious, a resource not to be wasted for a second. Though the fall equinox is still weeks away, autumn hovers on every shaft of golden afternoon light, plays in the golding leaves of the walnuts and the brown-crinkled edges of the oaks. The fawns who were born in the woods this spring are losing their sun-dapple spots–they won’t need them when the leaves have fled and the sun is scarcer.

Soon the sun will rise and night will slip away into the busy forgetfulness of day. Soon the heat of summer will be a memory only.

The parlor of the day

The day came slow, till five o’clock,
Then sprang before the hills
Like hindered rubies, or the light
A sudden musket spills.


The purple could not keep the east,
The sunrise shook from fold,
Like breadths of topaz, packed a night,
The lady just unrolled.


The happy winds their timbrels took;
The birds, in docile rows,
Arranged themselves around their prince
(The wind is prince of those).


The orchard sparkled like a Jew,—
How mighty ’t was, to stay
A guest in this stupendous place,
The parlor of the day!

~Emily Dickinson

First impressions: Oooh, colors! Imagery! This is good. Oh, wait, casual anti-Semitism. Ick.

Second-read impressions: I love all the color imagery. Sometimes Dickinson seems to be painting with words in an impressionistic sort of way, splashing them across the page for their affect as much as their precise meaning. “The sunrise shook from fold”–how do we read this? It seems meant to be felt as much as understood. Is it a sheep fold? or a fold of cloth? Regardless, we feel the essence of what she is getting at–something once contained, now freed.

And then there’s “The lady.” Rhythmically, this could just as easily be “A lady,” but Dickinson is specific. Which lady? Are we supposed to know this? Intuit it? Either way, the kernel of sense is clear.

And how do the birds arrange themselves “in docile rows” around the wind? Long experience observing chickens has taught me that birds + wind does not in any way equal anything remotely like “docile.” Again, it’s the feeling rather than the meaning that matters here.

We are always guests in the morning. We cannot remain in it, much as we might like to. It moves on–or we move on. One way or the other, our sojourn there cannot last.

“Take care, for God is here. That’s all.”

THE MURMUR of a bee
A witchcraft yieldeth me.
If any ask me why,
’T were easier to die
Than tell.


The red upon the hill
Taketh away my will;
If anybody sneer,
Take care, for God is here,
That ’s all.


The breaking of the day
Addeth to my degree;
If any ask me how,
Artist, who drew me so,
Must tell!

~Emily dickinson

Yesterday, an errant honeybee found her way into my kitchen. I caught her in a glass jar and set her free. I wonder where home is for her. Redbuds haze the wooded hillsides with their purple gauze, and dogwood buds have unfurled into white-green blossoms. The other morning, when I went out just before sunrise to let out the chickens, the Alleghenies to the west blazed momentarily red with the light of the dawning sun. Spring is full of such moments, fleeting and peerless. “Take care, for God is here. That’s all.”