The Close Reading Project - My first close reading of Emily Dickinson's Blazing in Gold...

Tiger Lily as Seen at the New York Botanical Garden's  Recreation of Emily Dickinson's Garden
Tiger Lily as Seen at the New York Botanical Garden's
Recreation of Emily Dickinson's Garden

The Close Reading Project: 

Before I polished and primped my critical thesis for my MFA in Creative Writing, I blogged the content of the project. In fact, those posts were the origin of this arts and culture blog. Below is one part of my third semester critical thesis project on the concept of "a close reading of poetry" and what it entails.

A first attempt at a close reading of 'Blazing in Gold' by Emily Dickinson

Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple
Leaping like Leopards to the Sky
Then at the feet of the old Horizon
Laying her spotted Face to die
Stooping as low as the Otter's Window
Touching the Roof and tinting the Barn
Kissing her Bonnet to the Meadow
And the Juggler of Day is gone
~Emily Dickinson

The first thing that struck me about this poem was the riddle aspect. Shortly after that, when I began to “figure out” what it is that blazing in gold and quenches in purple, I realized that practically every line was a distinct visual image. I then began to imagine what it was that performed all these acts, and figured out the riddle. The playful element and the little mystery was what first attracted me to this poem.

Upon closer inspection, I came to like it even more for the unconventional images and the thoughtful and thought-provoking way they are presented. The first thing I did in my close reading was make a drawing of each image presented in 'Blazing in Gold...'. Those drawings are included as an appendix to this section. (View the illustrations at this link.) Having a visual representation of the images described gave a nuanced insight to the poem that staying in the “word only” realm would not have allowed. For instance, when I attempted to visualize “Leaping like Leopards to the Sky”, I didn't see it at first. But I thought about exactly what a “leaping leopard” would look like: black spots with yellowish-orange moving in an arc across the sky. How can the sun appear that way? After some deliberation, I thought about when you close your eyes after you've looked right at the sun. I went outside, looked directly at the sun then closed my eyes. When I did that, I saw the reverse of colors: black spots, yellowish-orange background, like a leopard. It was this unique imagery that was what was so exciting about the first impression of the poem, and made it even more so when embarking on the close reading.

When making the drawings, I also noticed that lines 3 and 4, were the only lines that together made one image; the other lines offered one image. These two lines are also the starkest of the poem. In lines 3 and 4, the sun lays her spotted face to die at the feet of the horizon. The “feet of the horizon” is the curve of the horizon at sunset, like the curve of two heels on the ground. The spots, which were spots in the previous line, is now mostly hidden from view, so it is lying to die. The spotted face also brought the image of age spots, sun spots from aging, on someone who is old.

If it were that I, too, did not see New Englandly*, I might not have been able to visualize the next image, of the sun stooping as low as the otter's window. However, I have seen the little islands otters make on lakes or rivers (or wildlife preserves at Blue Hill Mountain) and the sunset beaming into the black archways of their homes, their windows, so I was able to draw a very crude otter's home on a river with the sun beaming in.

The funny thing is that three lines after the stark image of the spotty faced death of the sun, Dickinson writes one of the sweetest images I've ever read in a poem. And, perhaps because of the juxtaposition, it doesn't seem saccharine, just—nice. The sun kisses her bonnet to the meadow. I had just heard an interview on NPR with Julie Andrews when I set out to do the drawings and could not help but think of the image of Maria with her arms outstretched, the camera sweeping in, like the bonneted sun kissing her in the meadow. (Side note: that was, apparently, one of the most treacherous scenes to film—something about the helicopter, with the cameraman in it, blowing her over hard onto her bottom after each take. Just like the sun isn't always kissing sweet but sometimes blazing or dying.)

I drew a big, shaggy sun juggling little suns, slightly different in appearance to mark the way it looks in the sky depending on the time of day for the last line “And the Juggler of Day is gone.” I also wrote a little stage note of “Exeunt.” at the bottom corner of the page because it did seems like the final scene of a play, a little skit.

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 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-er” 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 dying sun in the middle. It is something to stay with you 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 levels 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, Maine 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 bluish landscape, with rough crab grass mixed with sand, pine trees and tiny shingle wood cottages crammed all around me. It is the stuff worth poems, and Emily Dickinson did it so very well.

*This is a reference to a line in another Emily Dickinson poem, posted below:

285 The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—

The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—
Because I grow—where Robins do—
But, were I Cuckoo born—
I'd swear by him—
The ode familiar—rules the Noon—
The Buttercup's, my Whim for Bloom—
Because, we're Orchard sprung—
But, were I Britain born,
I'd Daisies spurn—
None but the Nut—October fit—
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit—I'm taught—
Without the Snow's Tableau
Winter, were lie—to me—
Because I see—New Englandly—
The Queen, discerns like me—