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06 September 2011

The rainbow never tells me

The rainbow never tells me
That gust and storm are by –
Yet is she more convincing
Than Philosophy.

My flowers turn from Forums—
Yet eloquent declare
What Cato couldn't prove me
Except the birds were here!
                                                  - F 76 (1859)

We are back in the school of nature where the deepest truths are revealed in rainbow, flowers, and birds. Dickinson draws time and again on a natural system of wisdom – witness her Bee as preacher and even as God in earlier poems. She would have been familiar with melancholy Jacque’s speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where he notes that
… this our life, exempt from public haunt,

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

Sermons in stones, and good in everything (2.1.13).
There is a correspondence between seeing and understanding that is more direct than wisdom couched in the abstract texts of philosophy or the polished rhetoric of statesmen. To see the beautiful rainbow is to see literal evidence of moisture in the air. No explanations or other interpretations are needed. Certainly the rainbow adds beauty and wonder to the heavens, opening the heart to contemplation and inspiring the soul.
            The second stanza continues the theme. Flowers, like rainbows, do not speak yet they return from the cold hard ground of winter every spring. Their presence reflects rebirth, perhaps even resurrection, and a natural progression. Many birds forage through flowerbeds for seeds and then disperse the seeds. The new crop of flowers then bears witness to the presence of birds. Seeing birds and flowers emerge every spring is a powerful message and more eloquent evidence of the nature of life than anything Cato (presumably the Younger) could have presented in his arguments.


  1. Your analysis is beautiful. Thanks.

  2. Cato the Elder (234–149 BC), Roman soldier and author of 'De agri cultura', a rambling farmer’s almanac focused on viniculture and the oldest extant book in Latin. Cato the Younger (95–46 BC), conservative politician noted for craftiness and stoicism. ED loved gardening and had this to say about politics: "George Washington was the Father of his Country - George Who? That sums all Politics to me” (L950, 1884). Cato the Elder gets my vote.

    The first two lines of ‘The rainbow never tells me’ are illogical if “by” means “passed”. Perhaps "by" means “nearby” or “approaching”; the last two lines suggest that blooming perennials and returning birds convince ED that spring is here more than an old almanac in rustic Latin; and, finally, ED’s assumption that a rainbow is a female sounds sexist to this ancient mariner. A rainbow is an 'it". Humph.