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16 June 2012

It can't be "Summer"!

It can't be "Summer"!
That – got through!
It's early – yet – for "Spring"!
There's that long town of White – to cross –
Before the Blackbirds sing!
It can't be "Dying"!
It's too Rouge –
The Dead shall go in White –
So Sunset shuts my question down
With Cuffs of Chrysolite!
                                                            F265 (1861) 221

As puzzle poems go, this one is fairly straightforward. The question is implied in the first line: if “It” isn’t Summer – as summer has already been gotten through – then what is it? One thinks immediately of Fall, for Fall follows Summer. And indeed, we next learn that it’s too early to be Spring. Nor can it be Winter because there is a stretch of snow, “that long town of White” that has to be gotten across before the birds come back. Autumn it is, by process of elimination.
Yellow peridote, or Chrysolite in its
beautiful sunset gold colors
            The poem takes a slightly different direction in the following lines where Dickinson turns to human life. Of course, the seasons have always been metaphors for life: the spring of one’s youth, the summer of our maturity, the autumn of our transition into our winter years where we prepare for death.
            Just so, the season can’t be winter for there is too much “Rouge” – the blood is still coursing in our veins whereas the Dead are bloodless and pale as snow. Again, we are left with the answer – Fall, or Autumn. New England is famous for its fall colors: red, yellow, gold, and orange. These, including the “Rouge,” are the sunset colors that Dickinson refers to in so many of her poems.
            The last two lines erase all doubt. Sunset, with its festive chrysolite cuffs, is so autumnal in its colors that it might as well spell out the answer across the sky. Now today we think of chrysolite as greenish, the more common color of peridote, but some peridote is indeed yellow. The word "chrysolite" itself comes from the Greek and means “yellow stone.”  And so Dickinson means for us to envision the sunset sky with its vivid rouge center that fades out to yellow-gold at the periphery.
            It’s typical (and pretty wonderful) of Dickinson to never mention what she is referring to by name. Spring is when the blackbirds sing. Winter is a town of White, a place of the dead dressed in white.

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