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18 March 2014

The Trees like Tassels — hit — and swung —

The Trees like Tassels — hit — and swung —
There seemed to rise a Tune
From Miniature Creatures
Accompanying the Sun —

Far Psalteries of Summer —
Enamoring the Ear
They never yet did satisfy —
Remotest — when most fair

The Sun shone whole at intervals —
Then Half — then utter hid —
As if Himself were optional
And had Estates of Cloud

Sufficient to enfold Him
Eternally from view —
Except it were a whim of His
To let the Orchards grow —

A Bird sat careless on the fence —
One gossipped in the Lane
On silver matters charmed a Snake
Just winding round a Stone —

Bright Flowers slit a Calyx
And soared upon a Stem
Like Hindered Flags — Sweet hoisted —
With Spices — in the Hem —

'Twas more — I cannot mention —
How mean — to those that see —
Vandyke's Delineation
Of Nature's — Summer Day!
                                                                                 F523 (1863)  J606

Ah, the music of the summer psaltery: Wind playing through leaves and branches, insects humming in the air, and birds gossiping. Add to that the panoply of clouds and flowers – plus the scent of flowers – and the carrying-ons of the little creatures on the ground, and you have a pretty perfect summer day. In this completely charming poem Dickinson makes her preference pretty clear for the glories of such a day over even the finest art.

Woman playing a psalterion
She begins in the trees. The morning winds have come up, buffeting the branches until the trees bend and swing like the tassels one pulls to open a curtain or call the servants. As the sun rises the air quiets and "Miniature Creatures" such as bees and swarms of gnats come out, filling the air with the rapid beating of their tiny wings. The poet is enamored by this music, but notes that it can never "satisfy". It is a tease, most beautiful when out of reach, always leaving one wanting more.   
Portrait by van Dyk. 

Clouds sometimes cover the sun. Dickinson treats the sun if it were a monarch. He shines "whole" at times, while sometimes he is "Half" or "utter hid" as if he need not show himself at all. He has "Estates of Cloud" to shield him from the gaze of mere mortals. But just as the most reclusive king will venture out for some pet fancy or other, so the sun has a "whim" to "let the Orchards grow". Oh generous sun!
Dickinson then turns her attention to earth. A couple of birds are lazing about, and a snake whispers his "silver" conversation as it slithers around a stone to find a spot of warmth. The flowers also respond to the sun. Dickinson has them slitting open their calyxes – a wonderful image – as if so full of energy that they must burst out by force. Like flags eagerly raised by embattled troops, the flowers are "hoisted" up to soar on their stems, their petal hems full of spicy fragrance. 
A glorious summer day has even more riches, but the poet admits she "cannot mention" everything. She concludes the poem by saying that even a masterpiece by Sir Anthony van Dyk (1599-1641) would seem "mean" or shabby by comparison. Dickinson isn't quite playing fair here. Van Dyk was a portrait painter, so unless you really like baroque portraits of nobility, you would have to agree with her. 

Another lovely summer poem is Dickinson's "A something in a summer's Day" (F104).


  1. A lovely poem. The wind in the trees of the first stanza continues in the third stanza as fast moving clouds cover and uncover the sun.

    The sounds are beautiful. "[S]lit a Calyx" is just fun to say. The term "silver matters" evokes the word "slither" with the verb "charmed" brings snake to mind before the noun is even mentioned.

    The multi-syllabic word "delineation" calls to mind a line drawing and also the sense of abstraction that art bears to nature.

    1. Yes, I agree entirely. I also love the sun with his 'Estates of Clouds".

  2. Can you elaborate the theme of The trees by Emily Dickinson

    1. I think the first paragraph pretty much covers my thoughts on that. Dickinson is writing pretty much a tour de force anthropomorphising the various joys of a summer day and pointing out how our human artists turn out only a very pale version of beauty by comparison.

      Do you have a more specific question?

  3. Thank you so much. It was needed badly.

  4. Love the meter and consonance of “From Miniature Creatures”!

  5. I love this project.
    I wonder whether the bird-snake passage can be read as if the bird charmed the snake.

    I can't seem to publish this except as Anonymous. I'm Henry Taylor.

    1. I think you're right! That is completely charming and I thank you for pointing it out.

  6. “'Twas more — I cannot mention —
    How mean — to those that see —
    Vandyke's Delineation
    Of Nature's — Summer Day!”

    ED’s pulling our leg with Stanza 7.

    “There’s more I could tell you — but won’t —
    Because it’s unimportant — to those who see —
    Vandyke’s painting
    Of Nature’s – Summer Day!”

    Vandyke never painted a nature scene in his entire life. He was strictly a portrait painter.