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21 July 2020

An ignorance a Sunset

An ignorance a Sunset
Confer upon the Eye –
Of Territory – Color –
Circumference – Decay

Its Amber Revelation
Exhilarate – Debase –
Omnipotence’ inspection
Of Our inferior face –

And when the solemn features
Confirm – in Victory –
We start – as if detected
In Immortality –
Fr669 (1863)  J552

In many poems Dickinson describes sunset colors and clouds in dazzling precision; in others she creates evocative and sometimes playful metaphors out of sunset scenes. They inspire her almost rapturous delight as well as her musings. This poem's sunset is different, however, for in addition to the dimming of the landscape, its shapes and colors, it also reveals, inspects, and confirms. It's clearly not an ordinary setting of the sun.

The first stanza starts out with everyday sense: our eyes have more trouble making things out at sundown. But then Dickinson ends the stanza with '—Decay'. It's an unexpected and jarring word – and also ambiguous. Why and how Decay? What decays? 
        One way of reading this first stanza is that while Territory and Color become difficult to make out, Circumference decays. 'Circumference' is a key word in many Dickinson poems and Dickinson uses it to mean various things, from the globe of the planet to "the all-encompassing circle of existence" (ED Lexicon). In this poem, I think it takes the latter meaning but in a personal sense and with it Dickinson pivots from sunset to thoughts of death.
photo by AnnaWaraksa (
        In the second stanza we find the sun standing for God's ("Omnipotence') face inspecting us as we submit, as we must, to our approaching death. What the inspection yields is an 'Amber Revelation'. Both words of the term resonate: 'Amber' as both the twilight color of the sun as well as the fossilized tree resin in which small insects might be trapped and preserved. 'Revelation' serves both as an unveiling, a discovery – and also as a reminder of the Christian Biblical book of Revelations that depicts Judgment Day.
        And it is in fact the day of our judgment. The Amber Revelation is not so much that we find we are dying, our circumference beginning its decay, but what is revealed when Omnipotence – God – inspects us. What the sun's mighty and divine face finds will either Exhilarate or Debase us. 
        Dickinson ends the poem on the Exhilaration side. When the divine Sun, far from conferring ignorance, confirms salvation, we are not only exhilarated but startled to discover our immortality.

That 'as if detected' adds a bit of ambiguity to the poem. It casts us back to the beginning again. Has the poet been caught in a reverie? As she watches the sun set does she imagine it is watching her, too? With divine intent? I imagine her shiver with a start – that she has had a brush, an encounter, with the Divine.


  1. Thanks for this close reading -- very beautiful.

  2. I imagine also a visual shining of the amber hues on the skin as exhilarate and then shadow falling as light withdraws as debase.

  3. Stanza:

    1. A sunset prevents our eye from distinguishing territory, color, circumference, and decay.

    2. Amber sunset both improves and impairs God’s vision of our inferior face.

    3. When sunset vanishes, we start, as if caught in Heaven.

    The meaning of these lines evades me.