On Choosing the Poems
As we learn from one of her signature poems, “The Robin’s my criterion for tune” (F256, J285), Dickinson, or her speaker, cannot separate perception of the world from the seasons of New England, especially winter:
Without the Snow’s Tableau
Winter, were lie – to me –
Because I see – New Englandly –
Still, as L. Edwin Folsom observes, in Dickinson’s canon “winter imagery seems strangely absent.” For example, Folsom notes that Thomas Johnson listed only four poems in the subject index under the heading “winter,” while he identifies 30 that mention winter and almost 60 with imagery related to winter. To put this into perspective, Dickinson wrote at least 200 poems about summer, her favorite season, nearly the same amount about spring as about winter, and only 25 poems about autumn.
According to Barton Levi St. Armand’s elaboration of Rebecca Patterson’s explanation of Dickinson’s symbolism of the cardinal points, the poet associated winter with North and midnight, with burial and “eternity,” with entombment and Holy Saturday in the Christian cycle, with doubt, endurance and deprivation, with the color white and snow, with the hemlock tree, with New England geographically, with the aurora borealis or northern lights and, in the religious cycle, with repentance and purgation.
In his close study of Dickinson’s poetry of winter, Folsom spies some of these elements but concludes:
Winter for Dickinson is the season that forces reality, that strips all hope of transcendence. … She attempted to create the eternal Paradise of unending summer in her poetry, but this warm Eden stubbornly remained only a construct of words, hopelessly displaced from reality. Winter thus served as a perpetual backdrop, an obdurate counterpoint to any transcendent hope.
This continuous undercurrent has a salutary effect on the imagination, however, forcing it to work hard to create what Folsom calls
an internal summer or spring, a hope, to offset the encroachment of the external cold.
In a short poem dated around1865, Dickinson’s speaker speculates:
Did We abolish
The Summer would
not cease –
If Seasons perish
Is optional with Us – (F1024, J1014)
As further evidence, Folson offers this two line poem, which is undated:
Winter under cultivation
Is as arable as Spring (F1720, J1707)
And yet, despite this positive spin on “the grief of cold” in “I measure every grief I meet”, we cannot help but hear in Dickinson’s poems of winter the magnificent nihilism of her New England inheritor, Wallace Stevens:
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
(first published in the October 1921 issue of the journal Poetry).
It will be Summer – eventually.
Ladies – with parasols –
Sauntering Gentlemen – with Canes –
And little Girls – with Dolls –
Will tint the pallid landscape –
As 'twere a bright Boquet –
Tho' drifted deep, in Parian –
The Village lies – today –
The Lilacs – bending many a year –
Will sway with purple load –
The Bees – will not despise the
Their Forefathers – have hummed –
The Wild Rose – redden in the Bog –
The Aster – on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion – set –
And Covenant Gentians – frill –
Till Summer folds her miracle –
As Women – do – their Gown –
Or Priests – adjust the Symbols –
When Sacrament – is done –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Loose sheets. Various poems. MS Am 1118.3 (381), Houghton Library – (381a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Letters (1894), 209, the lines to Bowles (A); Poems (1896), 101, the fascicle copy (B), with stanza 1 omitted and alterations in stanzas 2 and 3 by Mabel Todd's father, Eben Jenks Loomis. Further Poems (1929), 195-96, with the first stanza restored and Loomis's alterations undone, but with five stanzas of another poem appended; corrected in Bingham, Ancestors’ Brocades (1945), 389n.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 18 in the 13th position about autumn 1862. We discussed it in an earlier post on Religion, where we focused on the sacramental imagery and possibly anti-Catholic implications of the line: “Priests – adjusts the Symbols” of the “Sacraments.” Here we focus on the seasonal symbolism.
This poem follows several other poems with important seasonal symbolism. The second poem in the fascicle, “I know a place where Summer strives / With such a practiced Frost,” describes the battle of summer and winter, staged as a version of Demeter’s rescue of her daughter Persephone from ravishment by Hades. According to the legend, Demeter’s grief over her loss causes death or a form of winter to descend on the earth, which becomes sterile, threatening all life. Thus, the cluster of frost-winter-death is associated with sexuality and rape. In this context, it is relevant to note that Dickinson sent the last three lines of stanza four of “It will be Summer – eventually” to Samuel Bowles in a letter dated early 1862, connecting it to the long exchange of letters and poems Rebecca Patterson outlines that use imagery of snow to denote sexual purity and the renunciation of forbidden love.
On first glance, “It will be Summer” is a winter reverie about the coming of summer in all its glory to “defeat” winter. Jane Eberwein reads the “Covenant gentians” Dickinson sends to Bowles as “a pledge of new birth following the apparent death of the botanical year.” In the finished poem, Dickinson offers more than that: the “miracle” of summer includes fragrant lilacs, promiscuous bees, lush wild roses and asters, a “bright bouquet” of sensual delights.
By contrast, Dickinson depicts the speaker’s present season of winter as the village “drifted deep, in Parian.” The Lexicon gives this definition for Parian: “Pure whiteness; color of exquisite white marble from the island of Paros in the Aegean Sea; [fig.] snow.” Barton Levi St. Armand connects Dickinson’s sculptural metaphors as part of the Victorian imagery of death architecture. We see a memorable example of it in another poem from Fascicle 18, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” in which “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs–” and experience “A Quartz contentment, like a stone–. ” This poem’s final, striking image connects it to winter:
This is the Hour of Lead -
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go – (F372, J341)
In “It will be Summer – eventually–,” the reference to Parian marble connects to the “Alabaster chambers” of the “meek members of the Resurrection” who timidly wait for immortality and evoke a beautiful, “pure and exquisite” paralysis and smothering.
And the freezing, sobering reality of winter is even there in the “Covenant Gentians” that Eberwein identifies as the pledge of summer’s return. Patterson argues that Dickinson borrowed the allusion to gentians from John Ruskin, who wrote, “We know that gentians grow on the Alps, and olives on the Appenines,” and drew implications of respective strength and sloth from their geography. Patterson finds this imagery in Dickinson’s “maturation poems,” such as “God made a little gentian,” (F520, J442) in which the humble flower tries and fails all summer to bloom like the velvety rose:
The Frosts were her condition –
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North – invoke it –
Creator – Shall I – bloom?
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “Emily Dickinson and the Calvinist Sacramental Tradition. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Judith Farr. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996, 89-104, 91-2.
Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 182-83, 184-85.
There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
'Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles. Includes 33 poems, written in ink, ca. 1860-1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Houghton Library – (74d) There's a certain Slant of light, J258, Fr320. First published in Poems (1890), 106.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 13 in the 10th position early in 1862. It has been much anthologized and discussed and stands at the very center of Dickinson’s poetry of winter. In fact, when it was published in the first edition of Dickinson’s Poems in 1890, the editors simply called it “Winter.” But it is much more than the “impressionist” word painting of nature that Mabel Loomis Todd implied when she characterized it with that loaded word. Readers connect this poem to Dickinson’s great ars poetica, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” (F1263, J1129) written years later but prefigured in the poet’s focus on a “Slant of light”seen on a New England winter afternoon.
This common seasonal phenomenon has the profoundest effect on the speaker, who anatomizes it with a veritable synethesia of imagery. The speaker offers a range of intertwined metaphorical associations to explain the effect of this slant of light, from religious (Cathedral, Heavenly, Seal), to nature (air, Landscape, Shadows, distance), to physical (Heft, hurt, scar, affliction, death), to psychological (oppresses, internal, despair). The first stanza hurtles us from visuality to an experience of “heft,” a powerfully physical word, to aurality and, finally, to a wounding (“internal difference” from what? from whom?) in the very depths of our soul, “Where the Meanings, are.”
The lesson taught to “us”by the slanted light is “the Seal Despair.” As Helen Vender notes, nineteenth century readers would have known that “despair,” understood theologically,
is one of the two sins that can prevent salvation (the other being Presumption – the belief that to be saved, one does not need to practice virtue.)
Etymologically, "Despair" means to give up hope, from the Latin de, “down from” and sperare, “to hope.” “Seal” is a biblical reference to the vision of John of Patmos, who describes seven seals fastening the book or scroll containing secrets that will be revealed with the second coming of Christ (Revelation 5-8). The opening of each seal unleashes an apocalyptic event. Dickinson’s “seal” ironically releases affliction and the presence of death.
In addition to its existential meanings, Vendler argues that this poem is also a lesson in how Dickinson’s symbolism works. As Dickinson deftly weaves together diverse imagistic threads, she
depends on our agility to move as she moves, from one plane to the other. After all, the poem itself tells us that for every outside phenomenon there is an inside equivalent … The impossibility of firmly separating the sense experience of landscape from the spiritual experience of Despair is a central point of the poem.
We see this also play out in the meter and rhythm of the poem, which begins irregularly, with trochaic lines of 7575 in the first two stanzas. The first line of stanza three, an important line that “seals” and fixes the presence of despair, is also truncated at 6 syllables. Dickinson’s first editors regularized it as “None may teach it anything,” removing the uncanny ambiguity and multivocality of this brilliant line. In the final stanza, lines 1 and 3 finally achieve 8 syllables but lines 2 and 4 remain stubbornly truncated at 5 syllables. Our inability to find comfort in the regularity of the hymn form suggests the “Heavenly Hurt” of “Heft” and echoes this grisly usage of that word in another poem:
A Weight with Needles on the pounds –
To push, and pierce, besides –
That if the Flesh resist the Heft –
The puncture – Coolly tries – (F294A, J264)
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 126-29.
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 263.
When I hoped, I recollect
Just the place I stood –
At a Window facing West –
Roughest Air – was good –
Not a Sleet could bite me –
+ Not a frost could cool –
Hope it was that kept me warm –
Not Merino shawl –
When I feared – I recollect
Just the Day it was –
+Worlds were lying out to Sun –
Yet how Nature froze –
Icicles opon my soul
Prickled Blue and cool –
Bird went praising everywhere –
Only Me – was still –
And the Day that I despaired –
This – if I forget
Nature will – that it be Night
+After Sun has set –
+ Darkness intersect her face –
+And put out her eye –
Nature hesitate – before
Memory and I –
+No November cool +Worlds were swimming in the Sun –
+When the Sun is set +Dark shall overtake the Hill–
+ Overtake the sky.
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXI, Fascicle 23. Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Houghton Library – (169a) When I hoped, I recollect, J768, Fr493. First published in Further Poems (1929), 181, as six quatrains, with the alternatives for lines 3, 11 (“swimming”), 14, 20, and 21-22 adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 23 in the 15th position. It provides a fascinating commentary on the previous poem, “There’s a certain slant of light,” and on seasonal symbolism in narrating a past when the speaker “hoped,” and the very moment she lost that hope to “fear” and “despaired.” It also echoes the meter of “There’s a certain slant of light” in its stanzas of mostly trochaic 7575 syllables.
In the first stanza, the speaker remembers standing at a western-facing window during winter and looking out at sunset and wintry weather—sleet, rough winds, frost—but feeling hopeful. For what or whom the speaker hoped we are never told. “Hope” is a word closely associated in Dickinson’s early life with religious conversion but in a negative way. During a religious revival at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson was in the group of refuseniks called “no-hopers.” We might also note that from her upstairs bedroom window to the west Dickinson could see the Evergreens, the home of Austin and Sue. But to guess the object of her hope is not the point; the point is the psychological states of before and after. What kept the cold away in the the first scenario is “hope,” what L. Edwin Folsom calls an “imagined internal summer” created by words and poetry.
In stanza two, the speaker recalls that the day she lost her hope was summery: “Worlds were lying out to Sun” or, even more actively, “Worlds were swimming in the Sun” and “Yet how Nature froze.” This is the inverse of Folsom’s notion above: “the internal winter of death.” Birds were singing as usual, but there were “Icicles opon my soul” that “stilled” the speaker, who is reduced from an “I” to a “Me.”
As if this were not enough pain, stanza three recounts the logical conclusion of fear, the loss of all hope in “despair,” and the inability of the speaker to forget that day. The disjunctive grammar in the last stanza suggests the speaker’s emotional turmoil, which is evoked as an injunction not to forget and projected onto Nature, through imagery of darkness and self-inflicted blindness. This allusion to memory brings us back to the beginning of the poem and its “recollection” of how an inner summery hope was enough to make the speaker impervious to the assaults of literal winter. Here, the speaker seems to charge Nature to recreate or reflect her inner extremity with a darkness more intense than night that blinds the sun. The subject returns as an “I,” where grammatically it should be a “me,” but its rhyme with the put-out “eye” and “Memory” practically fuses them in a past of darkness and emptiness.
The Winters are so short –
I'm hardly justified
In sending all the Birds away –
And moving into Pod –
Myself – for scarcely settled –
The Phebes have begun –
And then – it's time to strike
my Tent –
And open House – again –
It's mostly, interruptions –
My Summer – is despoiled –
Because there was a Winter -
And all the Cattle – starved –
And so there was a
And swept the World
But Ararat's a Legend – now –
And no one credits Noah –
Link to EDA manuscript.
Poems: Packet XXV, Fascicle 28. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (135d) The Winters are so short -, J403, Fr532. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 42.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 28 in the 8th position around spring 1863. It is a persona poem written in short meter of 6686 syllables rhyming abcb. Some of the trimeter lines are a syllable short, giving the poem a clipped and busy tone. But from the outset, and especially in light of our discussion of previous poems on this theme, we wonder: where or for whom are the winters “so short” as to be “mostly interruptions”? Furthermore, the word “Phebes” referring to the phoebe, a “small eastern North American songbird named after its call” appearing in Dickinson’s letters as a harbinger of spring, appears in Dickinson’s late November letter to Bowles, where she justified her refusal to see him after his return from Europe:
Did I not want to see you? Do not the Phebes want to come? Oh They of little faith! (L277)
Cynthia Wolff suggests that the speaker of this poem is “‘nature’ itself” speaking in
an air of naïve puzzlement, even querulousness … and like a housewife who is being forced to rearrange her parlor over and over again, nature complains at the continual disruptions.
But with the starving of cattle and the word “despoiled,” the poem’s tone changes and Nature begins searching for an explanation, finally turning to “the legends of an ancient Biblical past” with its “recollections of mythic devastation.” Then, as Wolff observes, winter takes on crucial proportions:
The “once” that describes “Winter” has less the quality of naming a specific era than of invoking some expanse of past during which there was utter extinction … as the winter of starving ineluctably recalls that even more ancient moment of archetypal destruction by water [the Flood].
From these allusion to earthly destruction Wolff concludes:
No argument can counter the implacable power of the Divinity; no comfort can assuage the pain of His victims. Thus the poem ends abruptly, with a dismissal rather than a conclusion.
In this reading, Wolff is intent on dispelling any trace of a “Wordworthian optimism” in Dickinson’s work that sees nature as independent of God, the Father. If this is so, then we as readers have to figure out how we “credit” the speaker’s/Nature’s flat, indifferent tone at the end of this tale that tosses out Ararat and Noah as fantasies and, more importantly, regards winter as a mere annoyance or interruption. Rather, winter lingers in our minds as a “despoiler” of Summer and even the whole world of Biblical proportions. It is a strong label with connotations of rape and pillage, stripping bare and laying waste.
Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 283-85.
Conjecturing a Climate
Of unsuspended Suns –
Adds poignancy to Winter –
The +shivering Fancy turns
To a fictitious Country
To palliate a Cold –
Not obviated of Degree –
Nor eased – of Latitude –
+freezing + Summer – • Season –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet V, Mixed Fascicles. Includes 15 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (21a, b) I measure every Grief I meet, J561, Fr550; Conjecturing a Climate, J562, Fr551. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1896), 47-48, with the alternative adopted and stanza 4 omitted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 27 in the 5th place, about summer 1863. It comes just after “I measure every grief I meet,” which lists one of the causes of grief as “the grief of cold” that comes just before “A sort they call ‘Despair’–.” We are definitely in the territory of Dickinson's winter.
This concise two stanza poem in common meter recommends fantasy as a hedge against the “reality” of climate. I put “reality” in quotation marks, because it’s not clear if Dickinson means literal climates and seasons or internal and psychic ones, or both. In fact, the whole poem is a “conjecture,” which means
speculation; inference; guess; imagination; notion not totally grounded in fact,
according to the Lexicon. It also gives “hope; faith” as possible meanings for “conjecture,” but those implications weaken as the poem proceeds.
To imagine a climate of “unsuspended Suns” is to imagine a place which doesn’t need the sun as earth does, a paradise we can only guess at or hope for. The sense of fiction increases as the speaker notes how this fantasy of “The shivering Fancy … adds poignancy to Winter.” In his vocabulary-driven reading of this poem, Greg Mattingly consults Dickinson’s Webster's Dictionary and notes that “poignant” had a sharper meaning in Dickinson’s day:
1. Sharp; stimulating the organs of taste; as, poignant sauce. – Dryden.
2. Pointed; keen; bitter; irritating; satirical; as, poignant wit.
3. Severe; piercing; very painful or acute; as, poignant pain or grief. – Norris. South.
So that a freezing or shivering Fancy could gain stimulation from imagining and remembering summer, though this rousing effect also brings some irritation, even bitterness, and maybe even pain or grief.
“Palliate” has similarly mixed connotations:
2. To cover with excuse; to conceal the enormity of offenses by excuses and apologies; hence, to extenuate; to lessen; to soften by favorable representations; as, to palliate faults, offenses, crimes or vices. – Dryden.
3. To reduce in violence; to mitigate; to lessen or abate; as, to palliate a disease.
Though fancy reduces the violence of winter/death/pain, it also makes excuses for it and, in a way, confirms the existence of harm. Summer becomes “fictitious” like Dickinson’s “Paradise, fictitious” from “Because that you are going” discussed in the post on Paradise .
The last two lines also present challenges of diction. This “cold” that in the previous lines needed palliatives and poignancy is, finally “not obviated of Degree –/ Nor eased – of Latitude –.” Understanding “obviate” to mean “to clear the way of obstacles” and “eased” in “seamen’s language … to slacken a rope gradually” and, thus, “to ease away,” Mattingly comes to an optimistic interpretation of the power of imaginative climatology:
The imagined country is not blocked from or prevented from enjoying higher degrees of temperature; … Nor would it be eased away from its temperate latitude on the globe.
Susan Kornfeld reads this final “twist” very differently:
the last two lines describe a Cold that is not going to be stopped or lessened by degrees of latitude or longitude. A trip to Tahiti will not warm this marrow-deep, soul-deep cold.
Similarly, L. Edwin Folsom observes:
An attempt to create a transcendent Paradise is therefore futile when winter shifts its frozen weight of reality upon man; then the imagined artistic eternity, the desire for eternal life outside the realm of shifting seasons, simply intensifies the cold reality which refuses to be “obviated” or “eased.”
Folsom, L. Edwin. “ ‘The Souls That Snow’: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” American Literature 47. 3 (Nov., 1975): 361-376, 364
Kornfeld, Susan. “Conjecturing a Climate.” the prowling bee. 10 August 2014.
Mattingly, Greg. Emily Dickinson as a Second Language: Demystifying the Poetry. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., Inc: 2018, 50-52.
Folsom, L. Edwin. “‘The Souls That Snow’: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” American Literature 47. 3 (Nov., 1975): 361-376, 363, 371-2.
St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 317.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
See also Stephanie Burt. “Snow Days: From flurries to relentless storms, why snow makes American poetry American.” Poetry Foundation. February 18, 2015.