Sunset at Night – is natural – (F 427, J 415)

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
suddenly –
Jehovah’s Watch – is wrong –

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XXXII, Mixed Fascicles, written in ink, ca. 1862. First published in Todd, Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894), lines 5-6, as an epigraph and Further Poems (1929) entire. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

We have included this poem because it explicitly connects “Master” with God, referred to as “Jehovah,” with a loss of faith in God, and with Science, all large themes that will be taken up in more detail in subsequent posts.

What happens when we are faced with an emotional or spiritual “eclipse,” the obscuring of one heavenly body by the other, that defies

Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), Amherst College Archives and Collections

prediction and explanation, even by science? Terry Blackhawk notes that “Dickinson drew on scientific and technical vocabulary to a greater extent that other poets of her time,” that she had read widely in science at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Seminary, and was profoundly influenced by the work of Edward Hitchcock, chair of chemistry and natural history at Amherst College and eventually its president from 1845-1854, who described himself as Amherst’s “geological theologian.”

Still, Dickinson was skeptical about science, satirizing its narrowness and dryness. “Scientific dogma pales against poetic epiphanies,” Blackhawk concludes, a notion captured by Dickinson’s startling phrase from this poem: “Jehovah’s watch – is wrong.”

Cynthia Wolff associates this poem with the doubt and loneliness Dickinson felt after 1856, when her beloved brother Austin finally accepted conversion during the raft of religious revivals that swept through Amherst and surrounding areas.

William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library

From the time she attended Mount Holyoke Seminary and was proselytized by its redoubtable headmistress, Mary Lyon, Dickinson refused to be “born again.”

Mary Lyon (1797-1849)

About her family Dickinson said in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their ‘Father.’” (L 261).

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