Part 7 cont - Emily Dickinson

After making the drawings, and looking at the lines as individual scenes, it was easier to closely read the text and see how the other aspects of texture, and the structure and form, supported the imagery. The most noticeable thing about the first line are the sounds of the words.

In one line, there are the uncommon sounds of “bl”, “z”, “g”, “ld”, “kw”, “nch”, “rpl”. These first four sounds are bold sounds and their sound certainly matches the meaning of the words. Blazing is a strongly visual verb; it is not a a human action. It is more like a description of what a fire does. Unless the word is being used as a metaphor, nothing else can blaze. The next word is the “gold”, another word that offers a bold vision. The next four sounds, while still uncommon are softer on the ear. This also matches their meaning against the first groups of words. “Quenching” is opposite of “blazing” - “to extinguish.” The color purple, while also a bold color, is the opposite in color spectrum from gold: red and blue make purple, yellow is therefore the opposite and gold is a variation of yellow. The colors purple and gold are usually attributed, culturally speaking, as royal colors. The sun also has cultural ties to royal symbolism. However, it is usually the Sun King and not a female sun. The sun is personified as a woman in this poem. I will explore that a little later. Those sounds also make the mouth active, so the kinetic action of forming them complements the action in the line.

The second line is a high school English teacher's dream come true because it employs so many figurations in such a short space. First is the alliteration: leaping like leopards, which adds to the whimsical image of exotic, spotted animals jumping through the sky (like a tiger burning bright?). To make the phrase even more enticing to those who teach literature, it also has a simile: we are to compare the sun going across the sky during the day to a giant pouncing cat. Then there is the especially delicious double personification: one non-human thing, the sun, is being personified through another non-human thing in action, the leopard. It is in this line that the nursery rhyme type rhythm begins to become obvious, adding to the playful nature of the line.

The next two lines are, as pointed out before, connected to make one image. This section also offers a shift in tone: from bold and whimsical to somber: “old Horizon”, “laying at feet”, then grotesque: “spotted face”, to as dire as it gets, “die”. In line four, the sun is first identified as a female, too. Up until then, there is no gender assignment. Why is the sun female instead of male? There is nothing explicit in the poem to answer that question. But, in the non-New Critic close reading, I am allowed to go outside of what is just in the poem and make some speculation, so I will. The action in the beginning of the poem is, for the time it was written, “masculine” action: blazing, leaping. Then, following the lines after the sun is a “her”, there are very passive verbs: stooping, touching, tinting, kissing. Stooping, touching and kissing are also very motherly actions so we can make a subconscious connection to the sun and mothers – both givers of life in one way or another. (Okay, feminist theory time over. )

There's also the possibility that this poem is autobiographical: the sun being a metaphor for the poet. When she did go outside of her house, that time could be her leaping, blazing time. When she became more reclusive, she “died” and had days filled with more passive action.

To stoop as low as an otter's window is to makes the sun a magnanimous thing, to be willing to by on the level of the creatures. The sounds in this sentence are also complement the action. “Stooping” is slightly onomatopoeic because it has the sound one might make when bending far down “oop”. The otter is not an everyday creature, an odd thing. Low and window give an internal rhyme. All of this adds up to another playful, whimsical line, like the other line with an animal in it – the leopard line.

If a reader was unable to figure out the mystery of the riddle, line 7 offers the biggest clues because it is the most obvious image. What could figuratively touch the top of a roof and tint a barn at the same time? The sun in the sky. This is also the line that shifts from the 10-8-10-8-10 beat line to 9, offering a concluding tone.

Line 8 is the “sweet” line, with the bonnet, which is metonymy (or is it synecdoche? because Harold Bloom and the Princeton Encyclopedia for Poetry and Poetics aren't conclusive about the differentiation...) for head, kissing the meadow. This very different from the dead, spotted face. Why are the two different images presented? Perhaps to show the nature of the sun—a meadow thrives with healthy sunlight (balanced with some rain). A face with too much sun gets scorched and spotted. The sun is multi-faceted.

The final line is also nine syllables long, if you pronounce juggler “jug-gull-erer” instead of “jug-ler”. That balances the form, so that is how I pronounced it, naturally upon the first reading. Juggle is another “active” verb, like in the first line. Sounds “j” and “gl” are uncommon sounds, like the ones in the first line. This ties the poem together structure- and texture-wise. “Gone” ends with a closed sound of “n” putting a final stop to the poem.

Unlike most of the poems Dickinson wrote, this one does not have her characteristic dashes. However, in other works, the dashes usually come when new ideas are introduced. This in one idea – the sun and its actions throughout the days. The substance of the poem, in general terms, is about a “universal” thing. The function is, superficially, as a riddle. Its delivery is sensibly direct. However, with its intricacies, its originality of images, it opens up to something bigger. Despite the playful riddle, there is still the characteristic existential pondering of Emily Dickinson with the dieing sun in the middle. It is something to ponder after reading the piece.

There is a structure in the poem and that offers the balance of it. The first and last line containing the same texture with the sounds and action words. There is an exotic animal and a New England creature in the poem. The “high” setting-- sky, horizon, roof—is balanced by the low—otter's window (water surface), meadow, barn. It is done with just enough deliberation to be noticeable but not too clever.

As a writer, this poem has provoked me to think about the sounds of words more. How often do I use unusual sounds in my work? It is something to think about. Those sounds are often kinetic, so it is something to think about when revising a lines that seems flat.

On a less microscopic level, what has this exercise done to help me with finding answers to my guiding questions. I think I need to live with this new information, the exploration, for a little while before I can come up with anything specific. For now, I will say that I loved the visual nature of this poem. I also liked that there was action in every line. It was an exciting poem – things happening on many level and this was clear from the very beginning. There's the original riddle and, once solved, is the mystery of why the poem exists. This is not definitively answered within the poem, but in just eight lines, it gives you enough to think about it.

On a different level, I was attracted to this poem because of its content: nature, specifically, the nature in my every day. I have never lived outside of New England. I have seen the purplish sun tinting on a barn while driving on my way home from work in Newport to my home in Pittsfield, Maine. It's breathtaking and I'm grateful for the wonder of words Dickinson uses to remind me of that vision. (Especially these days while I drive in bumper to bumper traffic on the dreaded route 128 of Boston.) I am writing this from an overcast day in Cape Cod. Despite the sun disappearing behind the clouds, I see a blueish landscape, with rough crab grass mixed with sand, pine trees and tiny distressed wood cottages crammed all around me. It is the stuff worth poems and Emily Dickinson did it so very well.