The Poems Nature: Scene and Meaning
Since Emily Dickinson was a child of rural nineteenth-century New England, it is not surprising that the natural scenes and figurative language drawn from it loom very large throughout her work. She had read in the poetry of Wordsworth, Bryant, and Emerson — all products of a Romantic movement that looked for meaning, imagery, and spiritual refreshment in nature. Her roots in a Puritanism that saw God manifested everywhere in nature contributed to her pursuit of personal significance in nature. The New England countryside of her time was still largely untrammeled, and she was fascinated by its changing seasons and their correspondence to her own inner moods. Although her direct observations were confined to meadows, forests, hills, flowers, and a fairly small range of little creatures, these provided material highly suitable to her personal vision and impressive symbols for her inner conflicts. Unlike the major English and American Romantic poets, her view of nature as beneficent is balanced by a feeling that the essence of nature is baffling, elusive, and perhaps destructive.
Her nature poems divide into those that are chiefly presentations of scenes appreciated for their liveliness and beauty, and those in which aspects of nature are scrutinized for keys to the meaning of the universe and human life. The distinction is somewhat artificial but still useful, for it will encourage consideration of both the deeper significances in the more scenic poems and of the pictorial elements in the more philosophical poems. As we have noted, nature images and metaphors permeate Dickinson's poems on other subjects and some of those poems may be more concerned with nature than at first appears.
"It sifts from Leaden Sieves" (311) shows Dickinson combining metaphor and imagery to create a winter scene of great beauty. The poem does not name the falling snow which it describes, thereby increasing a sense of entranced wonder. The "leaden sieves" that stand for an overcast sky also contribute to the poem's initially somewhat sad mood, a mood that is quickly changed by the addition of images that suggest a healing process. The following five lines show everything in the scene becoming peacefully smooth. With the third stanza, the observer's eyes have dropped from sky, horizon, and distant landscape to neighboring fences and fields. The fence becoming lost in fleeces parallels the image of wool, and the image of "celestial vail" (meaning veil) skillfully provides a transition between the two stanzas and brings a heavenly beauty to what had been the dissolution of harvested fields. Perhaps it also implies something blessed about the memorial which it makes to those harvests. The idea of snow providing a monument to the living things of summer adds a gentle irony to the poem, for snow is traditionally a symbol of both death and impermanence. In the last stanza, the observer takes delight in a close-up thing, the queenly appearance of fence posts, and then, in a tone of combined relief and wonder, the poem suggests that the lovely winter scene has really had no external source, but has simply arrived by a kind of inner or outer miracle. Our analysis can provide a basis for further symbolic interpretation of the poem.
An apparently more cheerful scene appears in the popular "I'll tell you how the Sun rose" (318). This poem divides evenly into two metaphorical descriptions — of a sunrise and a sunset on the same day. The speaker assumes the guise of a little girl urgently running with news of nature, delighted with the imaginativeness of her perception and phrasing, and pretending bafflement about the details and meaning of the sunset. The sun's rising is described as if it were donning ribbons, which is paralleled by hills untying their bonnets. The ribbons are thin strips of colored clouds which are common at sunrise, and which, as it gets lighter, might seem to appear in various and changing colors "a ribbon at a time." The news "running like squirrels" creates excitement in the scene, for squirrels do become active when the sun rises. The sound of the bobolinks prompts the speaker to address herself softly, holding in her excitement. At midpoint, the poem skips over the whole day, as if the speaker had remained in a trance. She claims to be unable to describe the sunset. Not surprisingly, the images for the sunset are more metaphorical than those for the sunrise. The entire scene is presented in terms of little school children climbing a stile (steps over a hedge). They go over the horizon into a different field, where a "dominie" (an archaic term for schoolmaster or minister) shepherds them away. The yellow children are the waning shafts of light and the purple stile is the darkening clouds at sunset. Sunset clouds are a traditional symbol of a barred gateway into another mysterious world of space and time, or into heaven. Dickinson has gently domesticated what may be a fearful element in the scene.
In several of her most popular nature portraits, Dickinson focuses on small creatures. Two such poems, "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" (986) and "A Bird came down the Walk" (328), may at first seem quite different in scene and tone, but close scrutiny reveals similarities. In "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" (986), as in "It sifts from Leaden Sieves," Dickinson does not name her subject, probably in order to create a mood of surprise or wonder in the reader, paralleling the speaker's reactions. "A narrow fellow," of course, is a snake. The use of "fellow" for the snake combines a colloquial familiarity with a sense of something presumptuously foreign to the speaker's habitat. The first two stanzas paint a very vivid picture of the smooth movement and semi-invisibility of a snake in deep grass. If one does not meet him (as if by introduction or full vision), one gets the shock of seeing grass divide evenly as a signal of his unseen approach. Surprise is continued by the snake's proceeding in a similarly semi-magical way. After this eight-line introduction, the poem slows down for the next eight lines as the speaker reflects on the snake's preference for cool, moist terrain, where perhaps she ventured when younger, or from which a snake once ventured into territory closer to her. We call Dickinson's speaker "her" despite the curious and significant reference to herself as a boy. Dickinson uses a male persona in a few other poems. Here, she is probably thinking of herself as a boy to stress her desire for the freedom of movement which her society denied to girls. Reflecting now on an earlier encounter with a similar snake, Dickinson describes the snake as a whiplash to emphasize its complete disguise when it lies still, a description that pairs neatly with the snake's concealed comb-like appearance in the second stanza. When she tried to pick up the whiplash and it had disappeared, she apparently was not overly surprised. Her desire to secure the whiplash is a faint echo of the tying of the worm with a string in "In Winter in my Room" (1670).
After the reflective interlude of the middle eight lines, Dickinson makes some general conclusions in the last eight lines. The reference to creatures as being nature's "people" is similar to the personification of "fellow," but it lacks its touch of disdain. She is moved to cordiality by other creatures because they recognize her and, in so doing, they have at least one human quality. But the snake belongs to a distinctly alien order. Even if she is accompanied when she meets one, she always experiences an emotional shock that grips her body to its innermost parts. The famous phrase "zero at the bone" converts a number into a metaphor for frightful and cold nothingness. The snake has come to stand for an evil or aggressive quality in nature — a messenger of fear where she would prefer to greet the familiar, the warm, and the reassuring. However, there seems to be ambivalence in her attitude; her vivid and carefully accurate, though fanciful, observation of the snake implies some admiration for the beauty and wonderful agility of the strange animal. The combination of such homely details and diction as "fellow," "comb," "boggy," "whiplash," and "wrinkled" with such formal terms as "notice," "secure," "transport," and "cordiality" gives the poem a particularly American and Dickinsonian flavor. One cannot imagine a Wordsworth or a Tennyson using anything but consistently formal diction for such description, and the American poets Bryant and Longfellow would have made such a sight an occasion for both a formal description and a positive moral. This poem is both descriptive and philosophical, and it runs counter to the tradition of poems that claim to see good intentions in nature.
The almost equally popular "A Bird came down the Walk" (328) is more cheerful than "A narrow Fellow" and more descriptive, but it also deals with man's alienation from nature. In the snake poem, the speaker is threatened by an emanation of nature. Here, she unsuccessfully tries to cross the barrier between man and nature as it is embodied in a less threatening creature. The first two stanzas show the bird at home in nature, aggressive towards the worm which it eats and politely indifferent to the beetle. The description of the angleworm as being a fellow eaten raw simultaneously humanizes the little creature and places it in a diminutive animal world. The speaker is enjoying her secret spying, which adds to the tension of the scene, a tension that becomes more explicit in the third stanza's description of the bird's frightened uneasiness. Its natural habitat is being invaded, and the speaker appreciates the bird's increased beauty under stress, a stress which is implied by the metaphors of its eyes being like beads and its head being like velvet.
In the fourth stanza, tension is divided between the speaker, who, rather than the bird, now seems to be in danger, and the bird who is about to flee. This device shows the speaker identifying with the bird, a sign of her desire for an intimacy that the bird will reject. The last six lines use metaphors for the bird that counter the humanizing touches of the opening stanzas, and they also counter the somewhat alienated tone of the middle stanza with more aesthetic images of the bird's power, ease, and union with nature. The bird departs into an ocean of air where all of creation is seamless. Probably the ambiguous quality in the speaker's experience is intended to contrast with the atmosphere of relaxed, almost cosmic, unity of these closing lines. Written in primarily iambic rhythm, the poem communicates its uneasy tone partly through its subtle metrical variation, chiefly reversal of accent, and through its cacophonous sounds — all largely in the first three stanzas. In the last two stanzas, the rhythms become smoother and the sounds more euphonious, in imitation of the bird's smooth merging with nature.
Mixed feelings of a different kind are striking in "The Wind begun to knead the Grass" (824), one of the finest of Dickinson's many poems about storms with (and occasionally without) rain. Not until the end of this poem do we realize that the speaker is probably safely inside a house and looking out of a door or a window at a developing storm. The details of the scene are presented in a series of vigorous personifications and metaphors. In the first eight lines, the wind is rising and sweeping across the land. Its force makes some of the grass stand up high and some lie down. The analogy to women kneading and tossing dough creates aesthetic detachment. The description of leaves unhooking themselves and dust scooping itself animates the landscape and conveys a sense of excitement about the release of power. The speaker is excited both by this manifestation of strength and by her safe situation, where no road for escape is needed. The human element enters very briefly with the "quickened wagons" that imply both fear and the vigor of fleeing people. Lightning is a giant bird whose head and toe stand for its jagged sweep (these details are clearer and more consistent in Dickinson's second version of the poem, which accompanies the first version in the Complete Poems and in the variorum edition). Birds putting up bars to nests humanizes their actions and parallels the behavior of people. All the images of flight thus far, including the description of the landscape, build up a tension which begins to ease with the description of the drop of giant rain, but the tension is maintained by the repeated "thens" and by the metaphor of hands holding up a dam, until these hands part and the rain comes. This passage creates the feeling of a breathless participation in the scene by the speaker, as if she herself were holding back the torrent. When the released waters "wreck" the sky (it has become a structure paralleling her dwelling), she is safe inside her father's house looking at a tree that has been split by lightning. It seems to please the speaker to see nature as both alien and familiar, wild and domestic. She enjoys watching the release of power in nature and can empathize with it while she remains in the safety of her home. The understatement of the last two lines suggests that she accepts her protected situation as a natural aspect of her life.
The very popular "A Route of Evanescence" (1463) often puzzles readers until they learn that Dickinson referred to it as "My hummingbird." Several critics have been interested in it as a possible revision of the earlier and not very accomplished "Within my Garden, rides a Bird" (500). "A Route of Evanescence" appears to be more purely descriptive than the snake and bird poems which we have discussed, but some readers have found philosophical elements in it. For analysis, the poem can be divided into three parts. The first four lines describe a hummingbird in flight. The first line presents a paradox — the route or path of the hummingbird is made of evanescence because the bird's speed denies its substantiality; bird and route have become identical. In the second line, the bird's whirring wings are a revolving wheel, a more definite image and therefore easier for us to apprehend, even though the bird is still seen as a blur. The third line employs synesthesia — the description of one sense in terms of another. Here the emerald of the bird's back and wings is a resonating sound, probably to give a sense of vibration. The fourth line is close to synesthesia in representing the bird's ruby-colored throat as "a rush of cochineal," a fusion of kinesis and sight. The fifth and sixth lines describe the bird's gathering nectar from the flowers from the blossom's own point of view. The blossoms are personified, and we sense an identification between speaker and flower. In the last two lines, the speaker comments on the whole experience. Tunis, in North Africa, is approximately 8,000 miles from New England. A morning's ride from there would be incredibly swift. The poet is implying by such an accomplishment that the bird is completely at home in nature and serenely confident of its power. These last two lines probably allude to a passage in Shakespeare's The Tempest in which a message from Naples to Tunis (a mere 400 miles was huge in the ancient world) could not be expected "unless the sun were post."
In the popular "I taste a liquor never brewed" (214), Emily Dickinson describes an intoxicated unity of self and nature without the alienation that haunts some of her other nature poems. Unlike most of the nature poems that we have discussed, this one describes not a scene but a state of mind. In the first line, the poet shows that the experience is just beginning by her use of the word "taste," which implies a sensation not yet dominant. The grammar of the second line is puzzling. The tankards may be places for real alcohol, or they may be her drinking vessels, in which case the pearl would refer to the preciousness or rarity of the experience. As soon as we read the poem's third and fourth lines, we see that a liquor never brewed must be a spiritual and not a physical substance, and her rejection of what comes from vats on the Rhine, a distant and romantic place, shows her reveling in the superiority of her home surroundings, no matter how small their compass. In the second and third stanzas, she is drunk on the essence of summer days, which seem endless. The formal diction of "inebriate" and "debauchee" light-heartedly spiritualizes the intoxication. Dickinson creates her scene of endless summer in a very few images, the image of "Molten blue" and the relatively simple images of bees, flowers, and butterflies being sufficient. The word "molten" gives us simultaneously the sense of a fluid sky along with a feeling of dissolving into this sky, and it is also a symbol for the spiritual liquor being drunk. This simplification imparts to the speaker's reveling a childlike quality in keeping with the poem's quick transformation of the sensuous into the spiritual. The third stanza suggests that no one can own the things of nature, and that when butterflies have had their fill of nectar, the speaker will go on drinking from nature's spiritual abundance. Her continued drinking indicates her insatiability but may also imply the triumph of her imagination over the decline of summer. In the last stanza, she has ascended into heaven, perhaps by the way of sunbeams, and heavenly angels come to the windows of paradise to see this spiritual drunkard leaning against the sun for rest. For the variorum edition, Thomas Johnson accepted a much different and tamer variant for the last two lines, but he restored the famous sun-tippler in Complete Poems and in Final Harvest. This poem has been compared to Emerson's "Bacchus," and one critic has suggested that Dickinson is parodying Emerson's poem. The comparison is interesting, but the poems are quite different in tone, the Emerson poem communicating an intense pathos much more reminiscent of Emily Dickinson in her poems which deal with her dark contemplations of the mysteries of the cosmic process.
Emily Dickinson's more philosophical nature poems tend to reflect darker moods than do her more descriptive poems and are often denser and harder to interpret. The nature scenes in these poems often are so deeply internalized in the speaker that a few critics deny the reality of their physical scenes and insist that the poems deal exclusively with states of mind. Our observation of the blending of idea with scene in the nature poems which we have already discussed cautions us against such an extreme view. It is more accurate to say that the philosophical nature poems look outward and inward with equal intensity.
In "What mystery pervades a well!" (1400), nature is seen as a large-scale abstraction. Although it is more expository than most of Dickinson's philosophical nature poems, it still maintains a balance between abstraction, metaphor, and scene. The imagery is centered on a well whose strange and frightening depths the speaker contemplates until her mind moves on to larger vistas of nature and finally, quite probably, to a contemplation of death. In the first two stanzas, we are made aware of the close and familiar aspects of a well and of its mystery. The metaphor of a neighbor from another world contained in a jar typifies Dickinson's combination of the familiar and the mysterious. In the second stanza, the homely lid of glass becomes terrifying when converted into "an abyss's face," one of Dickinson's most brilliant uses of a metaphor to represent an abstraction. The third and fourth stanzas show nature at home with itself, suggested by the grass's and the sedge's familiarity with wells and with the sea. In the last two stanzas, Dickinson grows more abstract and yet she preserves considerable drama through the personification of nature, the actions of those that study it, and the frightening results. She is skeptical about the real knowledge of those who most frequently talk of nature, evidently referring to transcendental philosophers and analytical scientists. Such people are pompous fools because they do not realize that nature's mysteries are ultimately unknowable. If they had ever looked at nature closely they would have become baffled and probably frightened by her and would not so glibly use her name.
The haunted house and the ghost bring up the question of death's relation to nature, which is further explored in the last stanza. There are possibly two different, but not necessarily contradictory, ideas here. Perhaps in the last two lines Dickinson is saying that the more an individual knows about a complicated subject such as nature, paradoxically the less he knows because he becomes aware that there is so much more to know and that there is so much that it is impossible to know. But it is more likely that Dickinson is suggesting that the closer a person comes to death, which is an aspect of nature, the fewer resources he has left to understand it because of waning powers of mind and body. Dickinson implies that to know nature fully is to be dead, which seems to be a more regrettable state than the pitiable state of ignorance.
Turning to Dickinson's more descriptive philosophical poems of nature, we start with the genial and popular "These are the days when Birds come back" (130), written in about 1859, a few years before the full flowering of her genius. The days when birds come back make up Indian summer, an event of great beauty in rural New England. As an early critic of this poem noted, birds do not return during Indian summer, and bees continue to gather nectar whenever they can. The scene, however, remains convincing, for we all have witnessed the persistence of some birds in early autumn, and we can understand the speaker's identification with bees, whose supposed skepticism is part of her mood. The poem dramatizes the speaker's unwillingness to see the year die, along with her acceptance of that death and an affirmation of a rebirth in nature. The bird's backward look symbolizes the speaker's yearning for the vanished summer. The sophistries of June are its false arguments that it will last forever — a feeling that Dickinson yields to in "I taste a liquor never brewed." The blue and gold mistake represents bright skies and changing leaves as false signs of persisting vitality.
The third stanza begins a transition with the speaker starting to resist the fraud that she would like to believe in. The seeds of the fourth stanza bear witness (a religious term) that the year's cycle is indeed running down, but these seeds also promise rebirth. The altered air emphasizes the reality of autumn, and the personified timid leaf partly stands for the apprehensive speaker and her fear of mortality. These two stanzas show her beginning to believe in a rebirth despite the atmosphere of decline, and this ambiguity is maintained in the last two stanzas. The supreme moment of Indian summer is called a last communion. The haze describes the literal atmosphere of such a scene and also suggests the speaker's sense of two seasons dissolving into each other and herself dissolving into the scene. These last two stanzas form a prayer in which she is asking to join in what she sees as nature's sacred celebration of the end of summer — she wants to be part of the sad joy of the time. The emblems and consecrated bread and wine are the apparatus of the Christian communion, but the poem presents them as part of the scene: seeds that will flower, and sap that will rise again, although the immortal wine is more an emotional condition in the speaker than an image. If we stress the Christian analogies, we can interpret the poem as an affirmation of conventional immortality, but it is more likely that it celebrates the immortality of the cycle of life while indulging in a bittersweet pathos about the beauty of the season's and life's decline.
Dickinson's novel stanza and rhyme pattern contribute to her effects. Except for the first, the stanzas all employ a rhymed couplet plus a shortened line which rhyme in pairs. The variation in the first stanza is effective; here, the first and third lines use a partial rhyme echoed at the end of the second stanza, and in the second line there is vowel rhyme (assonance) in "resume" and "June." This interlocking parallels the stop-and-go action of the bird's return, the backward look, and the colorful mistake. The metrical and rhyme patterns emphasize the hesitancy and yearning at each stanza's end. "Sophistries of June" and "blue and gold mistake" show Dickinson turning physical phenomena into metaphorical abstractions. The gentle personification of leaves prepares for the conversion of natural elements into religious symbols in the last stanza. We have seen the Dickinson persona in the form of a child in several other poems but never as strikingly. Here, the child guise suggest that the speaker is trying to hold onto faith. In her sterner poems about seasonal change, the childlike stance is absent.
Although "Of Bronze — and Blaze" (290) is not based on seasonal change, it provides material for an interesting contrast to "These are the days." Apparently written only two years after that poem, this one employs a completely different tone in its treatment of human mortality. The pre-variorum editions of Dickinson give the word "daisies" in place of "beetles" in the poem's last line in accordance with a manuscript variant. This grammatically difficult poem begins with a description of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, frequently visible in New England. Only the first two lines, however, present the physical occurrence. The rest of the poem elaborates on its meanings and their significance for the speaker's life. The northern lights are a display of awe-inspiring beauty, and watching them, the speaker is struck by their completely self-contained quality. The third line can mean "it forms an adequate conception of itself or the universe," or "forms" can be read as taking the object "unconcern" in the sixth line, in which case an understood "which" must be inserted before "infects my simple spirit." The sense of the lines is that this beauty in nature shows the sovereign universe to be indifferent to everything except itself or the processes that create it. Dickinson describes its influence on herself as infectious. Its contagious excitement is not proper or healthy for people because it makes them elevate themselves beyond the human sphere. The speaker's strutting on her stern proclaims her lofty pretensions and her revolt from ordinary organic life. She disdains the sustenance of oxygen because she wants to live superior to all human limitations, displaying an arrogance like that which the universe flaunts in these blazing lights.