Friday, April 30, 2010

I'll tell you how the Sun rose by Emily Dickinson

After yesterday's post, Shakespeare's "Doubt thou the stars are fire" from Hamlet, I was stumped as to how to end this year's National Poetry Month observance. So stumped, in fact, that I am cheating and backdating this post for the 30th, even though it's being written on May Day. But this morning, you see, it occurred to me to end the month with Emily Dickinson, and one of her many poems referencing the sun. This poem exists in manuscript form in two formats - once in four stanzas of four lines each, and once written all of a piece. I've opted for the second version today.

I'll tell you how the Sun rose
by Emily Dickinson

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 –
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*
That 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*** –
And led the flock away –

*stile: A set of steps for crossing over a pasture fence or wall
**Dominie: A schoolmaster
***Bars: Rails used to close off a gap in a pasture fence

Form: Like most of Dickinson's verse, this is written in common meter (8-6-8-6, a common hymn meter, and what makes it possible to sing her poems to tunes such as Amazing Grace, The Yellow Rose of Texas, and the theme from Gilligan's Island). Every second line rhymes (or near-rhymes - the first pairing is time/ran). Dickinson was well ahead of her time in using slant rhyme or near rhyme, something that, along with her preference for em-dashes, gave her first "editors" fits; as a result, they often "corrected" her punctuation and wording. Foolish, foolish, foolish, for her adventurous use of language, imagery and punctuation is sheer brilliance.

Discussion: The speaker here starts out extremely self-assured. "I'll tell you how the Sun rose," she declares, and proceeds to describe how the day became lighter, lighting steeple tops and hill tops first. The speaker claims to be far less certain about the sunset, stating "I know not". Dickinson then uses a protracted shepherd/schoolchildren metaphor to describe the colors in the evening sky - the way yellow light appears through bars of horizontal cloud, and eventually fall into shadow. She compares the yellow light to schoolchildren, climbing a stile, crossing to the other side of the pasture wall where the gray-clad schoolmaster closes up the pasture for the night and shepherds the students away.

If you aren't certain what a stile is, here's a brief video showing people crossing one:

Tomorrow (actually today, May 1st), I'll put up a directory of this month's National Poetry Month posts, which will form a sort of Table of Contents to this year's "Building a Poetry Collection" series.

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