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07 February 2015

Some say goodnight — at night —

Some say goodnight — at night —
I say good night by day —
Good-bye — the Going utter me —
Good night, I still reply —

For parting, that is night,
And presence, simply dawn —
Itself, the purple on the hight
Denominated morn.
F586 (1863)  J1739

On first read it seems that Dickinson must have had her favorite people in mind when she wrote these stanzas. Surely there were those whose presence she wouldn't equate with "dawn". But maybe not. Her family was protective, indulgent, and comfortably well off, so Dickinson was under no pressure to entertain. She had a group of friends she was devoted to, but even those friendships were conducted largely through letters. Consequently, the presence of a friend was probably much more significant to Dickinson than to those of us who meet and mingle on a regular basis.
        Her circle of visitors became even more narrowed as time went on. Six years after writing this poem she wrote to her friend and "Preceptor" Thomas Higginson that she "should be very glad" to see him if he came to Amherst, but that she did not "cross my Father's ground to any House or town" (L330, 1869). She often did not even visit with dear friends who came to see her.
        Her aversion to saying "Good-bye" or perhaps to parting in general might be explained by the intensity of her feelings. When one of her dearest friends, Samuel Bowles, returned from a seven-month trip to Europe in 1862, Dickinson stayed upstairs during his visit, sending only a note: "I cannot see you. You will not less believe me. That you return to us alive, is better than a Summer. And to hear your voice below, than News of any Bird" (Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson, p. 399). In the late 1870s when beloved friend and sister-in-law Susan Dickinson returned from a two-week vacation, the poet wrote, 'I cannot see you for a few days. You are too momentous. But remember it is idolatry and not indifference" (Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p.220).

One reason Dickinson felt the presence of friends and family so powerfully is her dread of their death. 
I should not dare to leave my friend,
Because – because if he should die
While I was gone – and I – too late – 
 …My Heart would wish it broke before – 

She writes this concern more explicitly in a letter written in 1852: "I look at my father and mother and Vinnie, and all my friends, and I say – no, cant leave them, what if they die when I’m gone” (L86 to Jane Humphrey).

With all this in mind, is it any wonder that Dickinson equates parting with night – itself symbolic with death? And so she chooses to always say "Good night" when parting with company, even during the day. It's almost comical, and she seems to recognize this. The first stanza makes light of this quirk with the repetitions of "Good", "Good night", and "night". She hammers the "g" alliterations with a "Going". We can just imagine the departing friend shaking his or her head in a sort of "that's Emily for you" way.
Dawn sky, vgamenut 

        The second stanza ends the poem with a positive affirmation of what the "presence" of her company means. It is "simply dawn" and dawn is the purple crowning of morning. This almost rapturous response to the presence of a friend or dear one must have taken a toll.
Some scholars have suggested that one reason for the period of estrangement between Emily and Susan Dickinson was Susan's exhaustion with Emily's intensity. Further, Dickinson's friend and poetry "Preceptor" Thomas Higginson wrote his wife 1870, that “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.” (Brenda Wineapple, White Heat, p.180). 

What a remarkable friend she must have been!


  1. I see this as ED taking a stance with language, announcing that her take is slant and autonomous.

    Good bye - the Going utter me I take as her mind's play with itself.

    And I agree she was overwhelmed by her own feelings when it came to her friends coming and going, so retreated not only physicality into her room but into her eccentric language as well.

  2. Replace "eccentric" above with "unassailable"

    1. Eccentric and unassailable. That is, if you don't take 'eccentric' as pejorative.

  3. Being eccentric is an expression of character, the weirder we are, and ED was certainly weird, at least in the Celtic tradition of the word, the more soul we have. We can say a lot of things about ED's social self, much of which could have a pejorative slant (not from me) but her poetic self IS unassailable.

  4. When I read this poem I can't help thinking of her line, "parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell." Day/Night the metaphoric or mirror image of Life/Death. People were dying all around her and she lived in constant fear of losing those close to her.

  5. If night is death and dawn is birth, a day must be a life. Live it, it ends tonight.