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22 September 2011

An altered look about the hills—

An altered look about the hills—
A Tyrian light the village fills—
A wider sunrise in the morn—
A deeper twilight on the lawn—
A print of a vermillion foot—
A purple finger on the slope—
A flippant fly upon the pane—
A spider at his trade again—
An added strut in Chanticleer—
A flower expected everywhere—
An axe shrill singing in the woods—
Fern odors on untravelled roads—
All this and more I cannot tell—
A furtive look you know as well—
And Nicodemus' Mystery
Receives its annual reply!
                                                               - F 90 (1859)   140

As I write this Spring is nosing about in Christchurch, New Zealand where I live. Ignoring the recent earthquakes that crumbled many nearby cliffs, the hills do have ‘An altered look’. Green is dusting their flanks and large swaths are blooming in the crayon yellow of gorse and broom and saltbush (all invasive exotics, alas, but healthy and colorful nonetheless).
Strutting chanticleer
            Dickinson takes a break here from the death theme of previous poems to sing to Spring. As she looks around the woods and hills of Amherst she sees the bright slanting light of spring, notes the lengthening days, and sees the first hints of flowers. At least there is a ‘vermilion foot’ and a ‘purple finger’—and ‘A flower expected everywhere.' The fauna is waking up as well: the fly is ‘flippant’, the spider back to spinning, and the rooster strutting his stuff.
            She addresses the reader directly towards the end when she says “A furtive look you know as well”. Since she began the poem by pointing out the ‘altered look’ she is adding a twist here by saying the look as the hills don their spring colors is furtive. Spring is slipping in with a finger and a footprint. The poet just knows the rest of us have noticed it!  Nicodemus, who famously asked Jesus how it could be possible for a man to be born again when Jesus said that doing so was necessary, is answered: You can be born again as surely as the hills wake and the flowers are born again and the animals do what animals do in spring: create new life. The earth is born again each year in spring.
            The poem is written with eight rhyming trimeter couplets. –and lots of dashes. Love the dashes—don’t you – 


  1. I love the dashes -

  2. Lines 1-12 seem transparent comments on spring, but then the mystery begins.

    Line 13: Did ED intend us to read line 13 as “All this, and more I cannot tell” or as “All this and more, I cannot tell—“? Is Line 14 a hint at the answer?

    Line 14: Oxford defines “furtive” as “attempting to avoid notice or attention, typically because of guilt or a belief that discovery would lead to trouble”. That definition suggestively suggests “In spring a young man’s [or woman’s] fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” (Tennyson, Locksley Hall, 1842), which raises the question; who is “you” in Line 14? Is it Susan, who knows the secret meaning of “more I cannot tell”, or is it the reader, who has no idea what the “more” is? On the other hand, if we read Line 13 as an innocent “All this and more, I cannot tell” there is no secret to hide, but then why be “furtive” about it?

    Lines 15-16: We’re left in a quandary of whether ED is innocently saying that spring brings blooming flowers (born again) or is she rejoicing because, under the influence of spring, the love ED and Susan shared before the 1856 marriage of Susan and Austin been reborn?

    Only Emily knows.