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20 March 2013

Sunset at Night – is natural –

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.

F427 (1862)  J415

As Dickinson reflects on the darkness at noon that an eclipse can bring, she initially portrays an innate faith in science. The universe is regular and predictable as a clock and scientists have been able to tell its time by charting the heavens. They certainly have eclipse prediction nailed. They bow them in with announcements and explanations and public lectures.
          The idea of the universe as a clock and God as a watchmaker go back a few centuries to the Enlightenment and the deists, articulated by such luminaries as Gottfried Leibniz and Newton, and espoused by the great U.S. president Thomas Jefferson. Facing this confidence, Dickinson remarks that a single unpredicted eclipse would topple the idea of “Jehovah’s Watch” – the clockwork universe. We would simply be faced with the paradigm-changing idea that everything about the cosmos we believed true would be suspect if not wrong.

Dickinson begins the poem simply enough. We expect sunset at night, not at dawn. For if there were sunset at dawn then noon must turn to midnight. Nature would be reversed. An eclipse at noon can certainly seems to reverse nature in this regard. But then Dickinson slips in “Master,” as if the poem is addressed to him.
          We know that she wrote impassioned letters and other poems to Master and this must, by that one word, belong to that group. Has Master done something so out of character that it is as if an eclipse came out of nowhere? Has he acted in a way the poet finds unfair or so arbitrary that it calls all her expectations of him into doubt? Or is this a continuation of an ongoing dialog? We’ll likely never know.


  1. Wonderful insight that the word 'Master' is key. I think Dickinson's love for the Master has disordered her personal universe. I think it's lovely that you are commenting on all her poems. I will follow this since I am reading a poem a day and usually mystified.

  2. This unexpected reminds me of what Robert Frost said about writing poetry, one of the many things: (paraphrased) what's the use of writing a poem if you know where you're going to end up.

  3. “Has Master done something so out of character that it is as if an eclipse came out of nowhere?”

    Perhaps not “out of character” but certainly unexpected and painful to the poet. After ED had spent seven years (‘ Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!’, F267) building a romantic relationship with Master, at least in her imagination but likely not in his, Wadsworth decided to resign his Philadelphia pastorship for one in far-away San Francisco.

    He and his family departed New York May 1, 1862, probably at dawn, “Sunset on the Dawn/Reverses Nature”. Franklin dates ED’s neatly written fascicle copy of this poem, ‘Sunset at Night – is natural –’ (F427) autumn 1862, which suggests she composed it soon after his early May departure. She expects to never see him again and knows her midnight of despair will follow dawn’s “sunset”.

    Had she known from the start that he would leave her after seven years, she could have steeled herself, but for him to leave “suddenly” suggests "God's [not] in his heaven—/All's [not] right with the world!" (Apologies to Robert Browning, 1841, ‘Pippa Passes’).