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14 March 2015

I watched the Moon around the House

I watched the Moon around the House
Until upon a Pane—
She stopped—a Traveller’s privilege—for Rest—
And there upon

I gazed—as at a Stranger—
The Lady in the Town
Doth think no incivility
To lift her Glass—upon—

But never Stranger justified
The Curiosity
Like Mine—for not a Foot—nor Hand—
Nor Formula—had she—

But like a Head—a Guillotine
Slid carelessly away—
Did independent, Amber—
Sustain her in the sky—

Or like a Stemless Flower—
Upheld in rolling Air
By finer Gravitations—
Than bind Philosopher—

No Hunger—had she—nor an Inn—
Her Toilette—to suffice—
Nor Avocation—nor Concern
For little Mysteries

As harass us—like Life—and Death—
And Afterwards—or Nay—
But seemed engrossed to Absolute—
With Shining—and the Sky—

The privilege to scrutinize
Was scarce upon my Eyes
When, with a Silver practise—
She vaulted out of Gaze—

And next—I met her on a Cloud—
Myself too far below
To follow her superior Road—
Or its advantage—Blue—
                    F593 (1863)  J629

According to John Mullan of The Guardian, this is one of the ten best examples of moon poetry. 

The lorgnette
The poem begins sweetly: the poet is moving from window to window, following the moon's ascension on its journey through the sky. After a while it seems to pause in one place as if taking a rest. The enthralled poet gazes on it with the sort of scrutiny she might give an interesting stranger. Dickinson claims that this is no lapse of manners: after all, "The Lady in the Town" doesn't find it uncivil to "lift her Glass" – her lorgnette – to look a stranger over. 

        And the moon seems strange indeed! Dickinson tosses out two similes that are both delightful and eerie. With no hands or feet or any of the typical arrangements of body and accoutrements, the moon first seems like the head of a lady severed by a guillotine (still being used in Europe in Dickinson's lifetime). In fact, under the sharp impersonal blade of the figurative guillotine the moon head slides "carelessly away" to an independent existence in the sky. Dickinson transforms the initial shock of a fine lady's head rolling away from the guillotine into the lovely amber face of the moon hanging effortlessly in the sky beyond her windowpane.
Guillotine, 1854 German model
        The second metaphor takes a little detour from the anthropomorphizing. Here, rather than a lady, the moon is like the severed head of a flower. Something holds it steady in the breezy sky, but that something seems "finer" than the mathematics of mass and distance that "bind" natural philosophers such as Isaac Newton. The flower moon is "upheld" – not having to labor at her own celestial position.
        In another twenty years Dickinson will write a poem likening frost to a "blonde Assassin" that beheads the flowers in "accidental power" and then "passes on" [F1668]. I wonder if the image of this stemless flower head was working in the back of her mind. 

Both images sever the head from earthly sustenance. The moon Dickinson regards is not a living being as we know women and flowers to be. Nor is the head a severed mind in the way we stereotype ivory-tower intellectuals or scientists. Dickinson makes that very clear in the following stanzas. The moon head has no hunger, does not concern herself with her looks, has no diversions, no concerns over "little Mysteries" such as Life and Death and what does or doesn't come after death. 
        Instead, she is completely engrossed in her own being and milieu: her shining and the sky through which she moves. There is no opening for human connection. While classic and romantic poets and playwrights typically link the moon with romance, mystery, and the supernatural, Dickinson's moon is entire to itself.  As if to underscore this point, the poem ends with the moon vaulting "out of Gaze", following her "superior Road" of blue.
The poem is a meditation on the heavens and heavenly bodies as absolutely unconcerned with human life. They fascinate and even obsess us – but the feeling is not mutual.

It is a striking poem. Written in basic ballad form, it unfolds as the story of a brief moment when the poet confronts a full moon from her window. Dickinson's vision is unique – who else would see a guillotined head? And Dickinsons "with a Silver practise – / She vaulted out of Gaze" is a line as fine a description of a rising moon as anything by Shelley or Wordsworth. I also like the little sketch of the "Lady in the Town" feeling quite justified lifting up her lorgnette to frankly examine a stranger. But while this might discomfort a stranger, the moon takes no notice of it whatsoever.


  1. I can't help but think about her poem "Before I got my eye put out -" There, she recalls how she too used to enjoy watching the sun like regular animals, but now she puts her soul on the window pane (and therefore she acts as the conduit through which the reader considers the sun). There, she treats the sun as a metaphor for life and death (or evanescence and permanence), and, here, she wonders if the moon is above all of this.

    Is "The Lady in the Town" Emily Dickinson or the moon? I think it's possible to argue it both ways... Though, when I first read it, I thought "Stranger" was the moon; so "Lady in the Town" has to be Emily Dickinson. If it's Emily Dickinson, then the lorgnette could stand for the window pane (filter/poem) that ED uses to present her guest (the moon). But, the moon, remains a true stranger, and doesn't allow her hands to formulate the moon in terms of foots and defined meter.

    If "The Lady in the Town" is the moon, well, then the lorgnette could be "Mare Imbrium."

    1. that's an interesting correlation with "Before I got my eye put out". I imagine Dickinson spent a lot of time lost in thought by her windows.

      As to the "Lady in the Town", I think Dickinson is simply employing a simile: she gazes directly at the moon just as the Lady gazes directly at a stranger: no embarrassment in either case. The moon, like the stranger, is a fascinating entity and therefore subject to unembarrassed scrutiny.