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06 March 2012

I'll tell you how the Sun rose –

I'll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time –  
The Steeples swam in Amethyst –
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –
The Bobolinks – begun –
Then I said softly to myself –
"That must have been the Sun!"
But how he set – I know not –
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while –
Till when they reached the other side –
A Dominie in Gray –
Put gently up the evening Bars –
And led the flock away –
                                                            - F204 (1861)  318

I never read this poem without a vivid picture in my mind of a New England dawn. This particular dawn must have been a stunner, for Dickinson is moved, after the glory has passed, to muse wonderingly to herself, “’That must have been the Sun!’”  Dickinson was an early riser – she had to be since her father woke her up before 4 am every morning.
            The poem is two 8-line stanzas compressed into one. The first half discusses what happened as the sun rose and the second describes what happens as it sets. Actually one could easily make four stanzas out of the poem as the meter and rhyme are in a standard ballad or hymn 4-line stanza format (alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines with rhymes on the second and fourth lines).

Sunrise ribbons
from my kitchen window
            The poet begins quietly. We are watching the horizon and see a ribbon of light, then another and another until the sun itself emerges. A lovely pink/purple color bathes the town, particularly the tall-steepled churches. Then the town and countryside awaken. The colorful light speeds across the land, brightening the tops of wooded hillsides and inspiring the bobolinks to begin their gleeful, chuckling songs. A few verbs inject a human-like busyness to the world: the steeples “swam” in the “Amethyst” color (and that is an interesting image because amethysts are a pink crystal form of quartz – very hard and you wouldn’t get far swimming in it; but here, of course, the air is like liquid amethyst), the news “ran,” and here the image is of nimble and clever squirrels dashing about with their “news” of sunrise much as gossips might dash about to their neighbors with some particularly juicy bit of news. Then the hills, like women letting their hair down, “untied their Bonnets,” and finally the Bobolinks “begun” – and these would be the children beginning to play and shout. And then, much like the bystanders in the old Superman TV series who asked, “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Superman!”, or even like the folks at the end of the Lone Ranger series who always asked, “Who was that masked man?”, we step back and say, “wow. That was the sun!”
            Dickinson often builds a little world peopled by birds and creatures and plants, and I think this is one of her loveliest.

Crossing the Stile
Winslow Homer painting

            The mood changes, however, in the second half. Here we don’t see the sun actually setting but the stile that allows people to cross over the pasture fence is purple with its fading light. The children are still yellow and gold with the last bit of sun as they climb the laddered steps to cross to the other side to be led away by the pastor in his gray robes.
            With this close we see that the day is used metaphorically for life – the image of day for life and sunset and night for dying and death is a traditional one. In this poem death is very gentle and we enter it as children simply crossing the stile to go home in the evening. The Dominie would be the minister, a familiar and comforting figure. When the children have crossed over, he puts the bars over the stile to prevent further passage that night. And then, as a flock of lambs, he leads them away. Lovely!


  1. Such a great poem !! My first impression was that Dickinson is just talking of the end of the day and the Dominie being the night which is helping the sun rays gently cross the day....

    1. It is lovely that way. I think Dickinson leans on the traditional poetic association of night and sleep with death and thereby achieves more depth and poignancy,

  2. Rhyme rules grammar, verbs past tense, except – begun – rhymes with Sun. Stopped me cold, not ED, rules made to break? Higher purpose? – Really? Easy way out?

    F204, first religious poem since F197. Six in a row on babies, love, or sex (F198 - F203). Did Vesuvius blow her top? Or Franklin play a prank!