On Choosing the Poems and Letter
In Nature (1836), the ground-breaking statement of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson laid out a Romantic approach to the sciences: “The poet alone knows astronomy, chemistry, vegetation, and animation, for he does not stop at these facts, but employs them as signs.” Thirty years later, Walt Whitman gave this approach a specific scenario and characteristic twist in his short poem composed in 1865, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which also illustrates the popularity of astronomy at the time:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Although Dickinson also looked to nature for knowledge of the visible and invisible worlds, she was skeptical of Transcendentalism’s idealism, the belief that the perceiving consciousness of the poet could bridge the gap between word and thing, self and other. Rather, as Sabine Sielke notes,
Dickinson recognizes nature’s defiance of human understanding, be it scientific or philosophical, and cherishes perception itself … Rejecting Emerson’s idealism and teleology, she insists on the separation between self and nature as a fundamental condition of human subjectivity. Knowing that nature – and as a consequence, the natural sciences – cannot answer the questions that preoccupy her, Dickinson turns toward the landscape of our psyche, where she locates another version of the division between self and other.
Dickinson’s poetic engagement with astronomy and other sciences was extensive. Nina Baym estimates that more than 270 of Dickinson’s poems, representing about fifteen percent of her output, employ some kind of scientific language. The discourse of science, Baym argues, allowed Dickinson to express a deep skepticism and attack religious dogma. Similarly, Paul Giles claims that “science for Dickinson represented not simply a positive field of learning but a challenge to every kind of sentimental domestic piety. … Dickinson was in many ways a lapsed Calvinist who incorporated science to stand the established world on its head.”
Other scholars, like Robin Peel, speculate that the self-reflective writing Dickinson produced has a special affinity with stargazing and “provides the individual with a means of navigating,” offering “points of reference and orientation, which can help us find our way home,” literally and figuratively. Resisting the teleology of Hitchcock’s religious science and Emerson’s idealism, Dickinson used the discourses of science, especially astronomy, as sign systems to explore her personal inner world and the panoply of human emotions, and connect them to the larger, impersonal forces of the universe. It was the astronomer’s dedicated and continual searching, not necessarily finding, that struck a deep chord in Dickinson. In a poem written in 1865, she likened the moment “When the Astronomer stops seeking / For his Pleiad’s Face –” to “treason.”
Dickinson wrote many poems about astronomy throughout her life. We selected a group from 1862, except the first poem, “Faith is a fine invention,” which Dickinson incorporated into a letter dated around 1860, and which is important to consider as a general statement on the status of science in her thinking.
Baym, Nina. American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth-Century Sciences: Styles of Affiliation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002, 136-49.
Giles, Paul. “‘The Earth Reversed Her Hemispheres’: Dickinson’s Global Antipodality.” Emily Dickinson Journal 20.1 (2011): 1-21, 7-8.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. The Complete Works: Centenary Edition. RWE.org.
Peel, Robin. Emily Dickinson and the Hill of Science. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010, 237.
Sielke, Sabine. Sielke, Sabine. “Natural Sciences.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 236-245, 240.
Whitman, Walt. “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Eds. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Dear Mr. Bowles.
"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see -
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
You spoke of the "East." I have thought about it this winter.
Dont you think you and I should be shrewder, to take the Mountain Road?
That Bareheaded life – under the grass – worries one like a Wasp.
The Rose is for Mary.
Link to DEA manuscript. Letter 220 was originally published in Letters (1894). Courtesy of the Dickinson Electronic Archive. The poem incorporated in the letter to Samuel Bowles, “‘Faith’ is a fine invention” (F202A, J185), was originally in Packet XXXVII, fascicle 10, Houghton Library – (201d,e,f). Includes 22 poems, written in ink, ca. 1860-1861. First published in Poems (1891), from the fascicle copies (B, C).
Dickinson incorporated this much quoted quatrain in a thank you letter to Samuel Bowles (L220), her friend and editor of the Springfield Republican, dated around 1860. She then copied it into Fascicle 10 in the eighth position on a sheet between “With thee, in the Desert – (J209, Fr201) and “The thought beneath so slight a film–” (J210, Fr203), two poems that also consist of only four lines. The poem is generally read, outside its context in the letter to Bowles, as a pithy critique of religious faith. The slightly mocking tone, the quotation marks around the word “faith” and its definition as an “invention,” a word closer to science than theology, all express Dickinson’s lifelong skepticism about unquestioned religious belief.
This skepticism suggests an attitude somewhat divergent from the textbooks she used at Amherst Academy and Holyoke Female Seminary, recommended by Edward Hitchcock, the eminent Professor of Geology and Theology at Amherst College and a Dickinson family friend. Hitchcock was renowned for reconciling the findings of science and Christian religious belief, but Dickinson hesitates to take comfort in an easy acceptance of dogma. In the letter version of the poem, Dickinson underlines “see” and “Microscopes,” emphasizing the theme of perception and scale through one “fine invention” of the scientific revolution.
As for the rest of the letter, editor Thomas Johnson says, “the import of the message remains obscure.” By contrast, biographer Richard Sewall dwells on this letter at length, as part of a long and coded epistolary conversation he thought Dickinson was having at the time with Bowles about the publication of her poetry. In this reading, the issue of publication had become something of an “Emergency.” But Sewall also posits other possible interpretations of the poem/letter based on the different symbolic meanings attributed to the word “East” in Dickinson’s work. Sometimes she used it to refer to the dawn and, thus, resurrection, or to the promise of human passion (Dickinson said of her brother Austin: “He married – and went East,” when in fact the Evergreens was actually west of the Homestead), or as “a challenge to an unconventional, unorthodox, dangerous life,” bareheaded and on a “Mountain Road” to a summit of enlightenment.
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 478-81.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 75-77.
Ah, Moon, and Star!
You are very far –
But were no one
Farther than you –
Do you think I'd stop
For a Firmament –
Or a Cubit – or so?
I could borrow a Bonnet
Of the Lark –
And a Chamois' silver
And a stirrup of an
And be with you – tonight!
But, Moon, and Star,
Though you're very far –
There is one – farther than you –
He – is more than a firma –
ment – from me –
So I can never go!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles, Houghton Library – (69c). Includes 33 poems, written in ink, ca. 1860-1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 94, from the earlier fascicle (A) with the line arrangement of the later one (B).
There are two versions of this poem, one from late 1861 and copied into Fascicle 11-11 (A) and another copied into Fascicle 14-3 (B) in early 1862. Dickinson doing some stargazing during this period, thinking astronomically and writing poems based upon her observations of the heavens, especially the night sky. This is a poem of longing and separation but it is also witty and playful with a characteristic twist.
In figuring separation, Dickinson uses the imagery of astronomical measurement and her diction reveals her historical and biblical knowledge. According to the Dickinson Lexicon, “cubit” means: “Measurement; distance from elbow to the tip of the middle finger; ancient measure of length used frequently in the Bible (see Genesis 6:15-16; Matthew 6:27).” As we saw in her letter to Bowles discussed above, Dickinson often links astronomy, the science of the heavenly bodies, with matters of religion.
The second stanza of this poem is pure imaginative invention in which the speaker offers to borrow attributes of animals, the lark and antelope, to bring her closer to the Moon and Star. Then comes the turn, in which the speaker intensifies the drama by identifying a “He” who is “farther than you,” in fact, “more than a firmament – from me –” In this move, the Moon and Star seem close, a bearable proximity for the speaker in comparison to a beloved separated from her by more than mere physical distance.
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
How noteless Men, and
Until a sudden sky
Reveals the fact that
One is rapt
Forever from the eye –
Members of the Invisible,
Existing, while we stare,
In Leagueless Opportunity,
O'ertakeless, as the Air –
Why did'nt we detain +Them?
The Heavens with a smile,
Sweep by our disappointed
+Without a syllable -
+it +But deign no syllable –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Fascicle16-7 (H54), around summer 1862. Courtesy of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Further Poems (1929), 90, as three stanzas of 5, 4, and 5 lines, the alternative for line 12 adopted.
The imagery of this poem also derives from a nighttime observation of the sky. The Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters, are a star cluster in the constellation of Taurus. As one of the nearest clusters to Earth, it is easily visible to the naked eye at night, especially in winter in the Northern hemisphere. Cultures around the world and through the ages have noted and observed this star cluster. The name comes from Ancient Greek and may derive from the word “to sail,” since the cluster is so important to navigation. In Greek mythology, the Seven Sisters were the daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. They became companions of Artemis, or Diana, the goddess of the hunt, and nursemaids and teachers of Dionysus.
As usual, Dickinson’s irregular syntax suggests multiple readings. Are “Men” and “Pleiads” both “noteless” (beneath notice or hard to see or beyond music) until a specific aspect of the sky reveals that “One” of them is obscured from sight? The word “rapt” has several complicating meanings, according to Dickinson’s Lexicon: spellbound and thus transfixed; immobilized and thus lifeless or frozen; enraptured, elated, awed; and transported or seized, also changed and immortalized. Does the linking of “Men” and “Pleiads,” gendered feminine according to the myth that named them, refer to humans who have been “raptured” up to Heaven like the Seven Sisters, and are then “Members of the Invisible” and outside our realm, “O’ertakeless”?
The last stanza offers a view of the Heavens as smug and silent, refusing to “deign” or condescend to the human need for knowledge and assurance. Sharone Williams points out that for a long time, astronomers considered one of the stars in the cluster of the Pleiades to be “missing” because it was so faint. Then, in 1859, it was found to be hidden by a cloud. Playing on this information, Dickinson uses the hidden Pleiad as figure for loss, as in “I had a guinea golden” (F12A, J23), “Whose cheek is this?” (F48A, J82) and “When the Astronomer stops seeking” (F975A, J851).
The Moon is distant from
the Sea –
And yet, with Amber Hands –
She leads Him – docile as a Boy –
Along appointed Sands –
He never misses a Degree –
Obedient to Her eye –
He comes just so far – toward
the Town –
Just so far – goes away –
Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber
And mine – the distant Sea –
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVII, Fascicle 19-9, Houghton Library – (145c). Includes 13 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1891), 104.
Dickinson wrote many poems about the moon and its effects and many also about the sea, which has many metaphorical meanings – passion, power, eroticism, separation. This poem employs the astronomical knowledge of the moon’s influence on the tides to create an allegory for the speaker’s relationship with a figure called “Signor,” a word that, according to Dickinson’s Lexicon, is both a “title of respect” and a “form of address” and means: “angel; messenger of God; [fig.] Lord; Master; Holy One.” We are, thus, in the territory of the Master Letters and should not forget that one interpretation of the identity of “Master” is “Muse” or poetic force.
Cristanne Miller notes Dickinson’s “unconventional use of pronouns” in this poem, arguing that it illustrates Dickinson’s restructuring of the conventional association of roles. In the first stanza, the moon, a powerful natural force, is gendered female, while the sea is “Obedient to Her eye” and “docile as a Boy.” Though boys are not traditionally known for their docility, except, perhaps to a powerful mother. But in the last stanza, the “Signor” figure is the tenor of the moon as vehicle, and the speaker is linked to the “distant Sea,” a role reversal in terms of gender. Perhaps this disruption, which cast the feminine figure in the position of power, mirrors the disruption of meter in the third and fourth lines of the second stanza.
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
Miller, Cristanne, “How ‘Low Feet’ Stagger: Disruptions of Language in Dickinson’s Poetry.” Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983, 134-55, 135-36.
You'll know it – as you know
'tis Noon –
By Glory –
As you do the Sun –
By Glory –
As you will in Heaven –
Know God the Father – and the Son.
By intuition, Mightiest Things
Assert themselves – and not
by terms –
"I'm Midnight" – need the
Midnight say –
"I'm Sunrise" – Need the
Omnipotence – had not a Tongue –
His lisp – is Lightning – and the Sun –
His Conversation – with the Sea –
"How shall you know"?
Consult your Eye!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXII, Mixed Fascicles, Houghton Library – (174b). Includes 12 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 83, as three quatrains.
This is a poem about cognition: how we know or apprehend. Terry Blackhawk notes that “to know” is Dickinson’s most frequently used verb and “was primary to Dickinson.” How we know gets to the heart of the debates swirling around New England at this time about the impact of Darwinian ideas: do we know primarily through observation and perception of the natural world, through experimentation – the scientific method, or do we know through intuition and faith, through the imagination, or through some reception and revelation of the divine? Or through a combination of the two, if that were possible? Can we know directly or do we have to approach knowledge indirectly, “slantwise” as Dickinson says in other poems, through circuity?
We should note that this is one of Dickinson’s many undefined “It” poems. In the first line, what is it we will know as we know the broad daylight of noon? The first stanza offers a series of solutions to how we will know: “By Glory,” in which bodily perception of natural phenomena (noon, sun) merges with the bodiless apprehension of Heavenly things (God, Son). The second stanza affirms “Intuition” as the means of knowing “Mightiest Things” which don’t assert themselves by “terms,” or humanly devised words or signs. This is reinforced in the third stanza where “Omnipotence” is mute (tongueless) and speaks directly through phenomena (Lightning, Sun, Sea). This merging reflects the “evolutionary theology” espoused by Edward Hitchcock.
The last two lines quote the question that the first line answered: “How shall you know”? It is a version of the question Jesus asked his disciples when he explained to them the parable of the Sower:
And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: 12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. 13 And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? (King James Bible, Mark 4, Matthew 13).
This allusion suggest that we cannot know directly but need the intercession of parables and stories, of interpretation. Still, the final line of the poem urges us towards direction: “Consult your Eye!”– that is, consult your own individual understanding based on perceptive and observation and don’t take things on faith.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 15. In her reading of this Fascicle, Sharon Cameron argues that it “exemplifies the terms in which the phenomenon of pairing – and the heteroglossia made manifest in the pairing – is significant.” One of the three sets of antithetical assertions Cameron identifies is “that direct knowledge is desired (“You’ll know it – as you know ‘tis Noon– ”) and, conversely, that oblique knowledge is superior (“A Charm invests a face / Imperfectly beheld– ”).” Seems like Dickinson wanted to have it both/all ways.
Blackhawk, Terry. “Science.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 259.
Cameron, Sharon. “Dickinson’s Fascicles.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 138-60, 151.
Sunset at Night – is natural –
But Sunset on the Dawn
Reverses Nature – Master –
So Midnight's – due – at Noon –
Eclipses be – predicted –
And Science bows them in –
But do One face us
Jehovah's Watch – is wrong –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXII, Mixed Fascicles, Houghton Library – (172c). Includes 12 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Todd, Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894), 191, lines 5-6, as an epigraph. Further Poems (1929), 75, entire.
We discussed this poem in our post on the Third Master Letter because it explicitly addresses “Master” and connects this figure with God (“Jehovah”) and “Science.” The question we asked in that post was:
What happens when we are faced with an emotional or spiritual “eclipse,” the obscuring of one heavenly body by the other, that defies prediction and explanation, even by science?
In the context of this post on Astronomy, we might ask why Dickinson uses the phenomenon of the eclipse, a reversal of nature or the natural order that happens slowly, as a figure for a sudden emotional or psychological reversal, especially one that produces unnatural darkness or obscurity when one expects full light?
In her second letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson said about her family: “They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their ‘Father’” (L 261). To describe the Deity her converted family prayed to as an “eclipse” associates their faith with unnatural darkness and obscurity rather than with the clarity that divine revelation is supposed to bring. Dickinson herself never converted to their faith. The phrase “Jehovah’s Watch” brings together religion and science, and may refer to the Enlightenment notion of a distant "watchmaker" God, who set the world to ticking and went off somewhere. Both systems fail to adequately explain the speaker’s experience of a sudden, personal eclipse.
In the governing image of the poem, Dickinson employs an astronomical reference that, in her hands, becomes a potent figure for a psychological experience. Mabel Loomis Todd used lines 5-6 of this poem as the epigraph for her book, Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894), a guide to the history, science and appearance of eclipses.
“Why an Eclipse Can Only Last Eight Minutes, by Mabel Loomis Todd.” New England Historical Society.