a perished sun

We learn in the retreating
How vast an one
Was recently among us.
A perished sun

Endears in the departure
How doubly more
Than all the golden presence
It was before!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Today is the darkest day of the year. The winter solstice. This seems like a fitting poem for the day. May you be warm and loved, and may you find light even in the longest night.


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.


How the old mountains drip with sunset,
And the brake of dun!
How the hemlocks are tipped in tinsel
By the wizard sun!

How the old steeples hand the scarlet,
Till the ball is full,—
Have I the lip of the flamingo
That I dare to tell?

Then, how the fire ebbs like billows,
Touching all the grass
With a departing, sapphire feature,
As if a duchess pass!

How a small dusk crawls on the village
Till the houses blot;
And the odd flambeaux no men carry
Glimmer on the spot!

Now it is night in nest and kennel,
And where was the wood,
Just a dome of abyss is nodding
Into solitude!—

These are the visions baffled Guido;
Titian never told;
Domenichino dropped the pencil,
Powerless to unfold.

Image via Pexels.com

This is a gorgeous poem, and I don’t want to belabor it with my clumsy explanation–just to point out some of my favorite bits. The “wizard sun” is a beautifully evocative phrase, as is “the odd flambeaux no men carry.” Dickinson manages to paint a picture of a moment which is at once thoroughly, specifically Earthly and yet supernatural. Sunset is a liminal space, the melting of day into night. It is both and yet neither, and this poem captures its many shades well.


A poor torn heart, a tattered heart,
That sat it down to rest,
Nor noticed that the ebbing day
Flowed silver to the west,
Nor noticed night did soft descend
Nor constellation burn,
Intent upon the vision
Of latitudes unknown.

The angels, happening that way,
This dusty heart espied;
Tenderly took it up from toil
And carried it to God.
There,—sandals for the barefoot;
There,—gathered from the gales,
Do the blue havens by the hand
Lead the wandering sails.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson is definitely going for the pathos with this one. “A poor torn heart, a tattered heart.” Intent upon its visions, the “heart” does not see the ebbing day, the encroaching night. It slips away, into the embrace of angels who carry it to God. I don’t know what to say about this one because it seems too obvious. And maybe a little cutesy, too, compared to the angst and existential dread of which Dickinson is so capable.

This is the kind of poem that makes me really, really wonder who Dickinson was. Was she this person? Or the person who wrote about the numbness of death? Or was she both? I suppose we all contain multitudes, and all of these are her. But some of her poems are rather difficult to reconcile with other ones. This feels like the kind of poem that would have been written by Emily Dickinson, Good Christian Girl. Very different from yesterday’s, which was clearly penned by Emily Dickinson, Preacher’s Kid Gone Wild.

But hey! It wraps up a month of (largely) shipwreck poems with a reference to salvaged ships, so it’s all good.

Time trembles

LOOK back on time with kindly eyes,
He doubtless did his best;
How softly sinks his trembling sun
In human nature’s west!

~Emily Dickinson

Years ago, I worked as a professional organizer and time management consultant. As a fledgling organizer, I read books, took online courses, and absorbed as much as I could about the ways in which we use space and time, and how to make better use of them. This poem is recalling those experiences and that knowledge for me now, because it is a plea to humans to change their perspective of time, which is much of what time management consulting is about.

The fact that the speaker needs to begin this way–even needs to write this poem at all–says something about human nature. We tend not to “look back on time with kindly eyes.” We blame time for our own shortcomings–there wasn’t enough time, I didn’t have enough time, it took too much time, who has time for that? Time, rather than our own failure to use it wisely, takes the blame. I think a huge part of that is our own Western view of time as linear, as opposed to other ways of understanding time as a circle or spiral that loops back on itself.

Whenever we don’t have enough time, it’s not time itself that’s to blame. It’s our use of time–but it’s so much easier to just say, It’s not my fault, I didn’t get enough time.

The line about the “trembling sun” is especially evocative of our attitudes towards time. Why is the sun “trembling”–is it because we’ve exhausted time? because time has learned to fear us? a little of both? Either way, it doesn’t sound positive. With our attitudes toward and use of time, we make time itself tremble.

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.


PORTRAITS are to daily faces
As an evening west
To a fine, pedantic sunshine
In a satin vest.

~Emily Dickinson

Short and to the point, this one. Portraits–the ways in which we memorialize faces that are otherwise ordinary to us–cast a certain glow over their subjects. They romanticize them. The idealized ways in which we choose to immortalize one another, whether in paint or Snapchat filters, are not the stark realities of broad daylight.


Where ships of purple gently toss
On seas of daffodil,
Fantastic sailors mingle,
And then—the wharf is still.

~Emily Dickinson

My edition of Dickinson’s poems has the posthumously-added titles, and they’ve got me wondering–how is it possible to title someone else’s poems after her death? I’m a novelist, and wretched at titles. I dream of publication for many reasons, not least of which is the prospect of someone else telling me what my books ought to be called. A novel is a massive thing, and for me to distill my own into a single word or phrase is daunting.

But a poem is different. It’s shorter, generally, and more enigmatic, more open to interpretation in some ways. The title of a poem seems to me to matter in a way the title of a novel might not. A title can alter the entire meaning of a poem.

When I read this particular poem, I think, “Ah, lovely sunset metaphor.” But am I thinking this because of the title? The title, which someone else slapped on after Dickinson’s death, far past the reach of her intent, has already colored the poem for me. Maybe it’s not about sunset? Maybe it’s…something else? I don’t know.

I’m starting to feel the way about this posthumous titling that I feel about seeing the movie before reading the book–it can preemptively ruin the whole thing.

And so the night became

The cricket sang,
And set the sun,
And workmen finished, one by one,
Their seam the day upon.

The low grass loaded with the dew,
The twilight stood as strangers do
With hat in hand, polite and new,
To stay as if, or go.

A vastness, as a neighbor, came,—
A wisdom without face or name,
A peace, as hemispheres at home,—
And so the night became.

~Emily Dickinson

It’s amazing what you can learn on the interwebs. For example, if you google the first lines of this poem, the first several hits you get are links to videos of people playing this as a song on marimbas. Who knew?

It’s a lovely poem, and does some wonderful things with language. The first line is a conventional sort of opening, but the second begins to work the poem’s magic. “A cricket sang,/And set the sun” can read as, “A cricket sang, and the sun set” or “A cricket sang, and made the sun set.” I love it–this suggestion that the cricket’s tiny melody could be the spell that sings down a star from the sky. The workmen act in a similar way–they leave a “seam” upon the day itself, as if knitting it together, completing it.

The second stanza begins with another conventionally poetic image–“The low grass loaded with the dew”–but then we get some wonderfully Dickinsonian personification. The twilight stands politely waiting. Though we know it is definite, certain, unavoidable, it acts as if we have a choice. It is gentle, reserved.

It makes sense, then, that twilight brings with it wisdom and peace. In the third stanza, it’s compared now not to “strangers” but to “a neighbor.” Though it has neither face nor name, it is familiar, comforting, settling.

I love the way that the first and last lines, taken together, crystallize the entire poem: “A cricket sang,” “And so the night became.”

Everything in its place

Morning is the place for dew,
Corn is made at noon,
After dinner light for flowers,
Dukes for setting sun!

~Emily Dickinson

One of the side-effects of growing up is that you start to inadvertently recall all the wise old sayings you detested as a child. When I read this poem, the one that springs to mind is, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” These lines aren’t concerned with human order, however–the artificial arrangement of our worlds–but with the natural order of things. Dew belongs in the morning. Corn ripens in the hottest part of the day, and the afternoon sun nourishes blossoms. They are followed by sunset, which is the place for dukes. Dukes may be human, of course, but this post by Susan Kornfeld makes an excellent argument for the Duke owl, which would of course emerge after sunset to hunt.

Nature has its perfect order. Everything is where it should be. There is a time for everything, a place for everything, and when everything is in its place, all is right with the world.