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04 August 2011

Before the ice is in the pools—

Before the ice is in the pools—
Before the skaters go,
Or any check at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow—

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

What we touch the hems of
On a summer's day—
What is only walking
Just a bridge away—

That which sings so—speaks so—
When there's no one here—
Will the frock I wept in
Answer me to wear? 
                                                              - F 46 (1858)

The poet foretells something that will happen before winter: sometime before the last harvest and Christmas. She expects 'Wonder upon wonder' to come to her. Dickinson never spells out what this wonder might be, but she hints in the third stanza that it is 'what we touch the hems of' in summer. The hint is Biblical as one of the most familiar New Testament stories has a woman pleading to be let touch even the hem of Jesus' garment so that she might be healed. Extrapolating from that, the poet seems to be suggesting a brush with the divine. Further, the 'wonder' is just walking on the other side of the bridge. Crossing a bridge over the water is a familiar way of talking about 'crossing over' or 'passing on' as euphemisms for dying and going on to an afterlife. Surely that qualifies as a brush with the divine.
     This wonder sings to the poet, talks to her, but only when no one else is there. A seducer, then, a very private one. The poet, ready for the seduction wonders about her frock--should it be the same one she wept in before? The implication is that she has wept for the coming wonder before but now wants to ready herself for it. So might a maiden have wept for a lover but then want to make ready for his return. 
     Dickinson write of death as seductive in other poems, notably "Because I could not stop for death" where death comes as a gentleman caller. I suggested in F44, "The Guest is gold and crimson" that the Guest is also death. At 28, the poet is young to feel the call of death, but one cannot read much Dickinson without feeling its call. Romantic poets, whom she followed by some thirty or forty years but was familiar with, often expressed what poet Allen Tate called the "subtly interfused erotic motive" that equates death to love.
     The first stanza is vaguely disquieting with its image of a cold pond before it ices over and is ready for skating parties. The "check" is sometimes written as "cheek", the difference being between a ticket (presumably for a skating party) and a face. The interesting part, however, is how the snow tarnishes it--generally snow is considered a symbol of purity, or as a lovely winter blanket. Perhaps Dickinson wants to be taken at harvest time, before the snow arrives that leaves behind dead, frozen, stubble and blooms. She waits as a jilted bride would wait in her special dress for the return of her groom--the 'wonder opon wonder' to arrive.
     I wonder if this isn't going a step too far, however, The poet might simply be writing about that magical pause between late harvest and winter when the world is gold and orange, when berries and pumpkins weigh down their canes and vines. In F32 she describes the berry's plump cheek, the browning nuts, and the gay scarf and scarlet gown of the field. In that poem the poet wants to put on a trinket, whereas in this one she wants to put on a gown she wept in--perhaps weeping for the tarnishing of glorious fall with winter's deadly snow.
     She may simply be writing about Sue's return to town, but somehow I find this idea lacking.

The strongest sounds in the poem occur in "That which sings so--speaks so--" and the line conjures up the siren's song calling sailors to their doom. 


  1. Illuminating post drawing in elements of Christian mythology that help us better understand the poem. "The Bride of Christ" (often thought to be the global congregation of believers) is certainly a central character in the Book of Revelation, a bride with "the moon under her feet." The centrality of the Book of Revelation in Dickinson's thought and writing is impossible to overstate.

    1. Thank you - I agree about Revelations, and the quote you include is exquisite.

  2. ED has faith that before the ice is in the pools she will experience inspirations for new poems. She is in awe of her inspirations of last summer, and she is confident that
    more inspirations are "walking just a bridge away" and that they will happen for her before winter. Nevertheless. she wonders whether her mental and spiritual "dress" of
    last summer, in which she shed tears of creative joy, will be adequate to receive the inspirations that lie ahead for her.