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03 July 2011

Morns like these—we parted—

Morns like these—we parted—
Noons like these—she rose—
Fluttering first—then firmer
To her fair repose.

Never did she lisp it—
It was not for me—
She—was mute from transport—
I—from agony—

Till—the evening nearing
One the curtains drew—
Quick! A Sharper rustling!
And this linnet flew!
                                                     - F18 (1858)

Dickinson was sometimes called upon to sit at bedsides, often of women who were dying and then at their deathbed. It would not be considered appropriate for a person to die or lie in death unattended, so often friends and family would take turns. Emily wrote in a later poem that she liked 'a look of Agony, / Because I know it's true," From this and other poems and sources we know she was a close observer of death.
     Here she recounts the death of a woman that took place in late morning--an ordinary morning "like these". By noon the woman was on her way to "repose"--whether Dickinson means the rest of the tomb or the rest in Paradise she doesn't say. But the woman never seems to have lost composure, never had to "lisp" or stutter out her pain or fear. Instead, she was silent--in a state of "transport," a word with the doubled meaning of both intense emotion and conveyance. The poet was silent, too, but because of the agony of watching the woman die.
     Later in the day, however, the soul departs, rustling through the newly-drawn curtains. When Dickinson says "And this linnet flew!" it is a cry of joy on behalf of the soul. Linnets were caged song birds popular in Dickinson's day and referenced in the poems of Tennyson and Wordsworth. So the final image is that of a caged bird flying to freedom.
    As in many of Dickinson's poems, the point of this is transformation, particularly of the soul. The choice of a bird is conventional as birds have long symbolized the spirit. 


  1. I so enjoy and appreciate your commentary. I was reading this too literally. Thanks!

  2. Did you get the backstory of sitting at the bedside of the dying from her letters? To what degree are her letters helpful in fully embracing her poetry in your understanding?

    1. If I recall correctly, there is an early letter where a close friend of the young Dickinson was dying. Dickinson desperately wanted to be with her -- and eventually she was allowed. Without doing some other reading, I can't tell you if there are other letters that describe deathside sitting (although I think she mentions her mother).

      The general idea of death watches comes from general reading.

  3. I've seen other interpretations of this poem which view it as the first comment, as a literal wonder of birds,but you see it more as an analogy of human death. If the poem did not have the "linnet flew!" reference would you still see it that way?

    1. I think so. The initial 'we' repitition complicates the poem for me. But rising to a 'fair repose' immediately suggested heavenly rest to me. Next, the 'transport' of the poem's subject coupled with the 'agony' of the speaker speaks to the moment of death.

      I'd be interested in hearing your explication of a bird being the subject, however. I am no stranger to having to completely revise my thoughts about a Dickinson poem!

  4. Lines 1-10 talk of the movements of a bird flying away - in morning, at noon - probably because of the speaker coming near and watching, with the song it sings not for the speaker, and the agony is for the speaker, and us, being more bound by the gravity than the bird. The speaker is in awe of what the bird can do, as compared to us who are more tied to where we are.

    But I must say the final line of "and this linnet flew." threw me. Coupled with "Till - the evening nearing," brought up thoughts of death, and your interpretation turned me around. The last line, I feel now. Is the key.


  5. Susan Gilbert Dickinson used the first four lines of Morns Like These as the closing lines of ED's obituary. Note that ED's mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, who died in 1882, is never mentioned in the obituary. Susan D must have been honoring ED's feelings: "I never had a mother".


    [Died May15, 1886]

    The death of Miss Emily Dickinson, daughter
    of the late Edward Dickinson, at Amherst
    on Saturday, makes another sad inroad on the
    small circle so long occupying the old family
    mansion. It was for a long generation over-
    looked by death, and one passing in and out
    there thought of old-fashioned times, when
    parents and children grew up and passed ma-
    turity together, in lives of singular uneventful-
    ness unmarked by sad or joyous crises. Very few
    in the village, excepting among the older inhabit-
    itants, knew Miss Emily personally, although
    the facts of her seclusion and her intellectual
    brilliancy were familiar Amherst traditions.
    There are many houses among all classes into
    which her treasures of fruit and flowers and
    ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were
    constantly sent, that will forever miss those
    evidences of her unselfish consideration, and
    mourn afresh that she screened herself from
    close acquaintance. As she passed on in
    life, her sensitive nature shrank from
    much personal contact with the world,
    and more and more turned to her
    own large wealth of individual resources
    for companionship, sitting thenceforth, as
    some one said of her, "In the light of
    'her own fire." Not disappointed with the
    world, not an invalid until within the past two
    years, not from any lack of sympathy, not be-
    cause she was insufficient of any mental work
    or social career - her endowments being so ex-
    ceptional - but the "mesh of her soul," as
    Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the
    sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit
    atmosphere for her worth and work.
    All that must be inviolate. One can
    only speak of "duties beautifully done";
    of her gentle tillage of the rare flowers
    filling her conservatory, into which, as into the
    heavenly Paradise, entered nothing that could
    defile, and which was ever abloom in frost or
    sunshine, so well she knew her subtle chemis-
    tries; of her tenderness to all in the home
    circle; her gentlewoman's grace and courtesy
    to all who served in house and grounds; her
    quick and rich response to all who rejoiced or
    suffered at home, or among her wide circle of
    friends the world over. This side of her nature
    was to her the real entity in which she rested,
    so simple and strong was her instinct that a
    woman's hearthstone is her shrine.
    [continued in next reply]

  6. Her talk and her writings were like no one's
    else, and although she never published a line,
    now and then some enthusiastic literary friend
    would turn love to larceny, and cause a few
    verses surreptitiously obtained to be printed.
    Thus, and through other natural ways, many
    saw and admired her verses, and in consequence
    frequently notable persons paid her visits, hop-
    ing to overcome the protest of her own nature
    and gain a promise of occasional con-
    tributions, at least, to various magazines.
    She withstood even the fascinations of
    Mrs. Helen Jackson, who earnestly sought
    her co-operation in a novel of the No-Name
    series, although one little poem somehow
    strayed into the volume of verse which appeared
    in that series. Her pages would ill have fitted
    even so attractive a story as "Mercy Philbrick's
    Choice," unwilling though a large part of the
    literary public were to believe that she had no
    part in it. "Her wagon was hitched to a star,"
    - and who could ride or write with such a voy-
    ager? A Damascus blade gleaming and glanc-
    ing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapt-
    ure was like the long glistening note of a bird
    one hears in the June woods at high noon, but
    can never see. Like a magician she caught the
    shadowy apparitions of her brain and tossed
    them in startling picturesqueness to her friends,
    who, charmed with their simplicity and home-
    liness as well as profundity, fretted that she
    had so easily made palpable the tantalizing
    fancies forever eluding their bungling, fettered
    grasp. So intimate and passionate a part of the
    high March sky, the summer day and bird-call.
    keen and eclectic in her literary tastes, she
    sifted libraries to Shakespeare and Brown-
    ing; quick as the electric spark in her'
    intuitions and analyses, she seized the kernel
    instantly, almost impatient of the fewest words
    by which she must make her revelation. To
    her life was rich, and all aglow with God and
    immortality. With no creed, no formulated
    faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas,
    she walked this life with the gentleness and
    reverence of old saints, with the firm step of
    martyrs who sing while they suffer. How
    better note the flight of this "soul of fire in a
    shell of pearl" than by her own words? -

    Morns like these, we parted;
    Noons like these, she rose;
    Fluttering first, then firmer,
    To her fair repose.

    [Susan Gilbert Dickinson
    Published May 18, 1886
    The Springfield Republican]

    1. Thank you for posting this. I have it years back, so is good to read again and have it here.

    2. Thank you Susan. And also thank you Larry

  7. Rereading the last stanza of ‘Morns like these’ (F17), the ambiguity of Line 10, “One the curtains drew”, suddenly struck me. ‘The feet of people walking home’ (F16) depicts death as “that Dark … my faith adores”, which sounded like a dark curtain closing on our known life, so my logical inference of Line 10, “One the curtains drew”, was a dark curtain closing. But then how could the linnet escape the cage? ED, Queen of Ambiguity, switched death from a closing curtain in F16 to an opening one in F17. Did she simply exercise her prerogative of changing her mind or is she playing games with readers seeking logic in her view of heaven, or both? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode.

  8. OOPS! ‘Morns like these’ is (F18)