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10 January 2016

To interrupt His Yellow Plan

To interrupt His Yellow Plan
The Sun does not allow
Caprices of the Atmosphere —
And even when the Snow

Heaves Balls of Specks, like Vicious Boy
Directly in His Eye —
Does not so much as turn His Head
Busy with Majesty —

'Tis His to stimulate the Earth —
And magnetize the Sea —
And bind Astronomy, in place,
Yet Any passing by

Would deem Ourselves — the busier
As the minutest Bee
That rides — emits a Thunder —
A Bomb — to justify —
                             F622 (1863)  J591

Dickinson contrasts humans, by way of bees, with the serene majesty of the sun. She also takes aim, I think, at the saccharine platitudes of Isaac Watts' poem "How Doth the Little Busy Bee", published in 1715, and popular during Dickinson's time (and beyond).

The first two stanzas describe the sun's imperturbability. Like the U.S. Post Office motto, neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail – nor any other "Caprices of the Atmosphere" –will interrupt his business. The stately third stanza describes this business as stimulating the earth to be fruitful, magnetizing the Sea (I'm not sure about what this might mean: the basaltic ocean floor is magnetized but that is geologic rather than astronomic), and binding Astronomy – probably meaning binding earth to the sun's progression through the galaxy.
        Those are big jobs! Nonetheless, to any passing extraterrestrial observer it would seem that humans have more to do. We are like the tiniest bees whose efforts to gather nectar involves an inordinate amount of buzzing – a "Thunder", Dickinson calls it, as if such a commotion will 'justify' its constant bustling about.
        The bees' Thunder allows an amazing segue to "Bomb" in the last line. But while bees' thunder indicates their passage among flowerbeds, human's thunder, their bombs, indicates their rush to destroy. And so it was in 1863 while Dickinson was writing this poem. Battles at Vicksburg, Gettsburg, Chickamauga, and Stones River – just to list a few that occurred that year – had nearly 130,000 casualties.
Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier & Ives 
        And what could Dickinson possibly mean, ending the poem with the word "justify"? Do we humans, or at least Americans at the time she was writing, believe that battles justify the victors? It's a sad and timely commentary, if so.

Now, as to Watts' poem about the "Little Busy Bee". The first two stanzas praise the bee who is industrious, skilful, and neat. Such attributes "Improve each shining hour". The last two stanzas find the poet wanting to emulate the bee for two reasons: to lead a good life and to stay busy so that the Devil can't make use of his 'idle hands'.
        I imagine Dickinson reading this poem and finding it deeply ironic. Most of her countrymen were exposed to this poem. Many of them spent their childhoods "In books, or work, or healthful play" and later strove to be busy in 'works of labor or of skill'. And yet rather than a society like the humming hive, they found no way out of their deep divisions except by busily building and employing the engines of war.

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.
                                     Isaac Watts, 1715


  1. "[M]agnetize the Sea" is a startling phrase. It recalls the effects of the Sun (and moon) on the seas -- the tides. The sun also warms the seas and creates currents. It could also simply mean attraction -- how the seas and all the life of the seas responds to the warmth of the Sun.

    1. Yes, I like what you say about attraction. The warm magnetism of the Sun magnetizes the sea. Lovely, thanks.

    2. A startling phrase, indeed. You both point out positive associations (attraction, warmth, responding living beings), but there could be negative associations, too: warming, ice melting, waves of flood.

      If we do not reject the phrase as an obsolete or doubtful image, guided by our “modern” science-influenced way of thinking – could there be in ED’s world view a fully intended individual use of “magnetize”? Beyond the meanings ‘make a magnet of’ and ‘attract as a magnet’.

      Is there a parallel between the phrases “magnetize the Sea” and “bind Astronomy, in place? (Astronomy, obviously, as the astronomers’ celestial objects; leaving aside the variant “from blame”.) Could there be an intended meaning like: keep the sea in place, so to speak, keep it magnetized to the ground? (Cf. EDL.) Or do I bring too much logical thinking in? (D. Wirth)

  2. First, thank you for your site and the loving work it entails. Second, I think the last line gets an additional valence if we remember this "Etymology: < French bombe, < Spanish bomba , probably < bombo ‘a bumming or humming noise’ < Latin bombus. The word is thus ultimately identical with boom." This is the bee's buzz in part, loud against an otherwise silent day (like the fly's buzz in "I heard.." but in the opposite direction in her menagerie of ululations). Here she plays with time as she does with size ("Yet small – she sighs – if all – is all – " were small is bigger than all typographically) and thus -- as with Christ -- sun/son -- the "eye" of the heavens -- is as unmoving not a paradise but an non-vital exception (Stevens capture this in "Sunday Morning") and the death of a god considered as outside her ongoing creation (Spinoza "Deus Sive Natura"). Thus the last line is elliptical and passes the poem to the reader( "poets light but lamps").

  3. Dear Mrs Kornfeld, in the German edition of ED’s complete poems (2015), translated by Gunhild Kübler, the last line of the poem „To interrupt...“ appears as: [Donnern] Das einer Bombe ziemte = engl. [Thunder] That would befit (suit) a bomb. Such a wording is strange German and based on a strange reading.

    You write: #Do we humans, or at least Americans at the time she was writing, believe that battles justify the victors? It’s a sad and timely commentary, if so.# Really: Battles justify the victors? Or the other way round: battles are (afterwards) justified in the case of some final victory? That is: A bomb is justified by the fact of a victory? Can this be expressed by the last line?

    If „justify“ has its common meaning, then it is a four-place predicate: Someone justifies something to someone (else) by pointing out sth. (or the like). With the variant: Sth. (...) justifies something in the eyes of someone. A minimal reading of the line „A Bomb – to justify –“ would be: There is the fact of a bomb which can justify something in the eyes of someone.

    Could the justified ‘thing’ be simply Any’s deeming (reasoning) that we are busier than that bee? (Cf. in a similar meaning: A bomb to argue by.)

    With kind regards,
    Dieter Wirth (Regensburg, Germany)

  4. I may be approaching this way too simplistically, but I see the end of this poem simply as man, the passer by, over emphasizing his own significance in relation to the sun. Think Shakespeare, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  5. In thinking the last stanza over in light of the various comments, I think it serves to complete the sense of perspective: The sun is grand and god-like. Everything else is puny by comparison. We humans, like busy, buzzing bees, make a lot of noise to justify our sense of self importance.