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30 May 2014

Delight — becomes pictorial —

Delight — becomes pictorial —
When viewed through Pain —
More fair — because impossible
That any gain —

The Mountain — at a given distance —
In Amber — lies —
Approached — the Amber flits — a little —
And That's — the Skies —
                                   F539 (1863)  J572

This poem continues the dialectic between pleasure ("Delight") and pain that she explored in the previous one.
        Each of the two stanzas examines perceptions from a distance. Through the lens of pain, delight becomes something beautifully rendered as if it were a painting. It is "More fair" because it seems unattainable. Distant mountains bask in an amber glow (and Dickinson is partial to amber, using it to suggest beauty in twenty-four poems. Viewed more closely, however, the glow is seen to be not some radiant quality of the mountain itself but simply a trick of the skies. Up close the amber "flits", revealing its ephemeral quality. It is illusory rather than real.

Dickinson employs an interesting variation on the ballad meter, alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic dimeter: four feet alternating with two feet (rather than four alternating with three). The effect is to give more punch to the dimeter lines. "And That's – the Skies –" can almost be read as a punch line.
William Louis Sonntag,
"VIew in the White Mountains" 1888

Typically mountains seem blue-ish in the distance unless it is sunset or sunrise. Dickinson didn't travel much but she was well read, was interested in art, and listened to travelers. White Mountain art was extremely popular throughout her lifetime and, like artists from the Hudson River school, the artists often clad the hills and mountains of New Hampshire in an amber glow.
          Among the notable artists painting the White Mountains at the time were Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Winslow Homer, George Inness, John Frederick Kensett, and Benjamin Champney. No doubt Dickinson would have seen some of their work. 


  1. Good point about the Hudson River School. Austin Dickinson collected paintings, including landscapes. There are a number of paintings in The Evergreens, including "Autumn Evening in the White Mountains by Gifford and "In the Cumberland mountains by Van Starkenborgh.

    Amber is an interesting choice here because amber also connotes a frozen quality -- as an insect is preserved in amber. So, the word helps evoke a static, unattainable vision of delight.

    1. I like the vision of the mountain captured in amber -- thanks -- and thanks for the info about the paintings. Must get there someday ...

  2. Interesting commentary. I think the use of words in this little poem is marvellous.
    I wonder if the verb 'lies', which describes the static mountain bathed in an amber glow, also suggests the deceitful, treacherous nature of light that is ever elusive and cannot be grasped?
    With this in mind, I find Dickinson's choice of words very clever. The illusory nature of 'delight' is suggested in the very word itself, for the second syllable is '-light'.
    I also love the way the intangibility of delight/light is brought to tantilising effect through Dickinson's use of the dash, especially after the verb 'Approached' which creates a separation of the subject with the object of its desire which can never be grasped.

    1. Good points -- I particularly like the 'delight' insight. I'm just now thinking about the skies. Delight / pain -- part of this world. Pain is a base condition -- delight elusive. The reality is beyond the haze, beyond the getting closer to the mountain -- it's in the heavens. And that puts pain and delight in a new perspective.

  3. Interesting point, Susan. And the enduring nature of pain, as opposed to the elusive nature of delight, is also implied through rhyming of 'pain' with an image of permanence, ie. the 'mountain'.
    Dickinson's choice of words is very clever indeed.

  4. ED Lex defines “Delight” as “Transport; elation; rapture” (Def 2 of 27); in other words, a mystical feeling. Earlier in her life, ED associated such feelings with beauty in nature, but even then she knew such moments were rare and fleeting:

    “A something in a summer's Day
    As slow her flambeaux burn away
    Which solemnizes me.

    A something in a summer's noon—
    A depth—an Azure—a perfume—
    Transcending ecstasy.

    And still within a summer's night
    A something so transporting bright
    I clap my hands to see—

    Then veil my too inspecting face
    Lest such a subtle—shimmering grace
    Flutter too far for me—” . . .

    F104, 1859

    Sadly, since then, she’s only found “subtle—shimmering grace” associated with love that led to painful loss. Now,

    “Delight — becomes pictorial —
    When viewed through Pain —
    . . . .
    Approached — the Amber flits — a little —
    And That's — the Skies —”

    The sky is still azure, but the “amber” is gone.