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23 March 2024

To my small Hearth His fire came—

To my small Hearth His fire came—
And all my House aglow
Did fan and rock, with sudden light—
'Twas Sunrise—'twas the Sky—

Impanelled from no Summer brief—
With limit of Decay—
'Twas Noon—without the News of Night—
Nay, Nature, it was Day—

   -F703, J638, Fascicle 33, 1863

We start small here with a “small hearth.” A hearth is a fireplace, which stands here, I think, for the heart, or the life force, of the poet. Once again, as in several of Dickinson’s poems from this time period, the pronoun “His” is ambiguous. It could refer to God or to a lover. To Dickinson I believe it referred to a lover, though to the reader it might stand for any kind of inflamed love.

From “Him” the fire comes, and then the whole house (the whole being) is aglow, suddenly. This sudden fire isn’t the violent kind. Rather it is glowing, and it gently rocks. The verb pair “fan and rock” is an intriguing one. When you think of fire and fan together you might first think of fanning a fire, but here it is the fire that is fanning, so it must mean the fire fans out as it spreads. Rock is something that you gently do to a baby in a cradle to help put it to sleep. So how does a fire “rock”? When a fire is in your hearth the light of the flames seems to sway on the walls, and that’s what I imagine Dickinson is talking about here. “His” fire spreads and gently sways as it enlarges to quickly become the sunrise filling the entire sky.  The effect of this is that the fire that Dickinson felt so intensely has now spread through time and space to light a fire in the reader’s hearth too. Don’t you feel a warm glow from these lines? Don’t the words fan your spirit like a sunrise?

Candlewood Lake CT - 2/19/24

Oddly Dickinson switches to legalese in the next stanza. “Impanelled from no Summer brief—” In a legal context "impanelled" refers to the process of selecting a jury for a trial. It involves choosing jurors who will serve as impartial judges of the facts presented in the case. If we interpret "brief" in a legal sense, it could refer to a written legal argument, typically outlining the legal argument involved in a case. Putting these together, "Impanelled from no Summer brief" might imply that whatever experience is being described hasn't been brought about through the typical legal proceedings or arguments of “summer”. It suggests that the experience of this “fire” is not bound by the usual legal frameworks or seasonal circumstances. The phenomenon being described transcends conventional boundaries. Dickinson’s father and brother were both lawyers, so this type of language would come natural to her.

But “brief” has a double meaning here of having a short duration, as is made clear in the next line, “with no limit of decay.” Summer is brief, the poet is saying, but not the love from Him, which transcends the temporary and is not limited by decay. There is something eternal about this fire/sunrise/summer/noon/day.

The last couplet “'Twas Noon—without the News of Night—/ Nay, Nature, it was Day—” simply means it stays noon, that the “nature” of this love is like an eternal day. The sound play in these last two lines is fabulous, created largely from the run of six “N” sounds, and by the assonance too, the “ooo” sound of Noon and news, and the way nay elongates into Nature. But there are other little things too, like the way “Twas” echoes the earlier use of that word, twice, in the first stanza, and the way it is echoed in the half-rhyme of the word “News” later in the same line. Then there is the strong rhyme of Day with Nay and Decay, which makes the final point feel emphatic. The poetry, if it is to echo and reinforce its subject, must be made so lyrically beautiful that it stays alive forever, capturing in its sound a fiery sunrise brightening to become an endless summer noon. 

- /)dam Wade l)eGraff

My first time through a poem I will sometimes grab a guitar and find a chord pattern and rhythm that seems to fit the poem's tone and then drape Dickinson’s words over the chord structure. It’s such a pleasure to hear Emily Dickinson’s words sung. Along these lines I found a beautiful version of this poem online in which a composer named Juan Ramos has written a sweet melody. The video is great because it just gives you the notes of music scrolling along with the words, and the singing is left up to you. It’s like poetry karaoke.


  1. In 20 words Adam’s explication Sentence 2, “A hearth is a fireplace, which stands here, I think, for the heart, or the life force, of the poet”, says it all. It shines universal light on ‘To my small Hearth His fire came —’. Yes, this poem (F703, “about the second half of 1863”) and your explication warm the heart. Thank you Adam.


    1. In March 1860, Wadsworth visited ED at the Dickinson “Homestead” in Amherst. Perhaps she invited him to come while he was visiting his college friend, Charles H. Clark, who lived in nearby Northampton, MA. She was, no doubt, pleased as punch that Wadsworth accepted her invitation.

    2. ED’s manuscript is in two quatrains that she probably intended to be read enjambed.

    3. Line 1’s switch of “Him” to “Wadsworth” is mine.

    4. In Line 2, Christine Miller (2016) emends “aglow” to “a’glow”, a favorite ED contraction, as in “a’caper” (F25) and “a’chase” (F407).

    5. EDLex defines “Impanelled” as “Draped; veiled; covered with curtains”, suggesting enjambed Lines 4-5-6 can mean “Day had no license to Decay or even briefly close its curtains”.

    6. Lines 6, 7, & 8 use ED’s suggested three alternatives [in brackets]

    A tyro’s take:

    “To my small Hearth, Wadsworth’s fire came —
    And all my House a’glow
    Did fan and rock, with sudden light —
    'Twas Sunrise — 'twas the Sky —
    Impanelled from no Summer brief —
    With [license] of Decay —
    'Twas Noon — without [Report] of Night—
    [‘Twas further], it was Day —”

    Circumstantial evidence suggests Wadsworth may have also visited ED in summer 1861, for example, ‘There came a Day—at Summer's full’ (F325, “about 1862”) and other poems.

    In 1880 Wadsworth again showed up at her door, this time unannounced, although ED may have invited him with ‘Spurn the temerity —’ (F1485, “about 1879”), which was camouflaged with codewords “Calvary” (Wadsworth) and “Gethsemane” (ED):

    “Spurn the temerity —
    Rashness of Calvary —
    Gay were Gethsemane
    Knew we of Thee —”

    This short poem was the last of ED’s 1789 known poems in which she used codewords “Calvary” and “Gethsemane”. Sixteen years earlier, during her maniacally productive years of 1860-1863, ED had used “Calvary” in 11 poems and “Gethsemane” in three poems, for respective totals of 12 and 4 poems. These codewords occurred in no other ED poems.

    For historical, statistical, and biographic details, see comments on ‘That I did always love’, (F652, “About the second half of 1863”).

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Ah, helpful notes, thank you. It doesn't make a noticeable difference, so the Christanne Miller addition of the comma in "a'glow" is fine, but I wonder what it adds? I think I would've left it alone. Why mess with it? "Aglow" is perfectly fine, no?

      Your note on the enjambment off the second stanza with the first is gold, as is the Dickinson Lexicon information that draped is another definition of impanelled. If you enjamb the second stanza, then the sunrise is draped over the poet, which is just a stunning image.

      The three alternative words also add dimensions to the poem. "License" riffs off the legalese, as does "report". But report also makes you think of gunfire. Report of night is more haunting with the echo of gunfire. "Twas further" makes you wonder how "day" might be further than "noon". And it is also rhythmically nice to have that 4th "Twas" in the poem. Thanks for catching that! Some believe that the poems' alternate words are meant to be part of the poem itself. I like that idea too.

  2. OED recognizes "aglow", but not "a'glow", as an English word since at least 1754. Perhaps Miller craves logical consistency with other "a'" contractions even when OED doesn't agree. Come to think of it, "a'" isn't a contraction at all; it's just a way to add a syllable where meter calls for it.

  3. "Twas further" makes you wonder how "day" might be further than "noon". (d. scribe)

    Lines 4-8 read like a manic high of happiness, pure joy, unending light, "all [her] house aglow / . . . with sudden light". ED felt "'Twas Noon — without Report of Night— / ‘Twas further, it was Day —”.

    Real or imagined, these are ED's "memories of the way we used to be" (Streisand).