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13 October 2011

A something in a summer's Day

A something in a summer's Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer's noon—
A depth—an Azure—a perfume—
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer's night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see—

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lest such a subtle—shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me—

The wizard fingers never rest—
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed—

Still rears the East her amber Flag—
Guides still the sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red—

So looking on—the night—the morn
Conclude the wonder gay—
And I meet, coming thro' the dews
Another summer's Day!
                                                                 - F104 (1859)  122

As if drifting into a fairy tale the poem begins with “A something in a summer’s Day.” The alliterative “s”s that continue with “slow” and “solemnizes” lull us. The first stanza encapsulates rest of the poem: the “flambeaux” of a summer’s day – its sun, moon, and stars – mark the passing of time as they “burn away.” There is a “something” there that is never spelled out in this poem, but that is solemnizing. Solemnity isn’t what we are schooled to feel in summer – autumn is the solemn month – as we’re more prone to think of summer fun or summer joy, so we know there is an alert and unique perception at work here.
The second stanza takes to noon where the “something” transcends ecstasy. That’s a tall order – ecstasy is a word we reserve for the most transporting experiences, the sort of word we use for whirling dervishes or the reunion when the soldier returns home. But we get a hint of what the something might be: it has “depth” like the sky or the sky’s inverse the sea; likewise it is Azure – again as if the sky and the sea were contained in the fullness of a summer noon. Poem F 95 presents summer flowers as creating an ecstasy, but Dickinson expands the feeling here.
We then are shown the something at night, something “transporting bright.” This seems much like ecstasy, but it is something visible, for the poet claps her hands “to see.” Perhaps it is the mystic whiteness of moonlight over the garden and graveyard. The poet perhaps rightly feels that she shouldn’t “inspect” the bright as it is “subtle” and “shimmering” and might fade away ­– “flutter” is the wonderful verb Dickinson uses – as magic does beneath the microscope.
In the fifth stanza we see again the “little brook” that was the wellspring of creativity in poem F 94; here it is chafing “within the breast”. That may be a good definition of ecstasy. In keeping with the fairy magic aura, there are “wizard fingers” that “never rest.” I think of that brook and the light from Summer’s flambeaux as stirring her soul. The wizard fingers might be the “something” of a summer’s day.
The wonders begin again with the first red-gold clouds of dawn, the “amber Flag” of the East that lead the sun and its lovely “caravan of Red” over the rocky hill. We are back where the poem opens, and another “summer’s Day!”
Crepuscular rays through redwoods
Susan Kornfeld
The poem is all sky and light and magic. No people, no town, no domesticated animals. Just the poet and her immersion into the solemn rhythms of summer. The colors are royal: azure, purple, amber, and red. The diction is exalted, the important words including transcendence, solemnizes, ecstasy, transporting, grace, wizard, wonder. It all swells the heart and, as long as summer lasts, is inexhaustible. 

5 comments:

  1. You will forgive me for attempting to interpret Emily Dickinson. But I feel that you have possibly erred in positioning "solemnizes" with solemn. Keeping in mind the entire tenor of the poem, solemnizes as read in the context of it's synonmy .. marks a celebration, and that is what she seems to be doing in the entire poem. Solemn, on the other hand relates to something "formal and dignified", a characteristic which hardly seems to be her strong point.

    But then I am still learning to appreciate Emily Dickinson and maybe totally of the mark here.

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    1. Yes, a celebration -- but one that causes her feelings related to 'solemn'. I think that solemn often means much more than "formal and dignified": it implies a sense of import, something weighty, perhaps even sacred. I think that's why Dickinson chooses words such as 'ecstasy', 'grace', and 'wonder'. There is majesty in a summer's day.

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  2. I don't believe you can err when it comes interpreting an ED poem. Her poems have many meanings, and it's really up to the readers to decide what her poems mean to them. That's part of the beauty of an ED poem.

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  3. Hi Susan, thanks for the great insight into this wonderful poem.

    The opening line is immediately striking as it creates an air of mystery by not naming anything specific about the summer's day. As you mention, the evocative sibilant sounds in the first stanza, such as those in the words 'something' and 'summer's', envelop the imagery in a mystical aura.

    In the second line, the noun 'flambeaux' is an interesting word choice, being a noun with a French origin. The use of the word aptly enables Dickinson to suggest both the physical properties of sunlight as well as the feelings of reverence and admiration that it inspires. The first syllable 'flam-' appropriately suggests the blazing light and heat of the sun on a summer's day, while the second syllable '-beau(x)', meaning 'fine' or 'beautiful' in French, appositely evokes the visual beauty and magnificence of the sunlit world that is intuitively exalted.

    Indeed, there is 'something' about such elements of a summer's day that invokes a feeling of awe in the speaker, as revealed in the third line by the suitably weighty four-syllable verb 'solemnizes', a word that evokes a sense of the speaker's quasi-religious reverence towards, or worship of, nature. The allusion to the sacredness of nature is heightened by the fact that the speaker chooses in the fourth stanza to 'veil' her face, as if a worshipper in the temple of nature. She is also aware of the intimation that the wonder of nature has the potential to escape her, and she is conscious not to dispell nature's nightly scintillating 'grace' (it is also worth noting the religious connotations of this latter word). The impression that nature is in the hands of a divine or mystical creator is evoked by the 'wizard fingers' that are endlessly active, continuously recreating each summer day anew.

    The religious and divine sense of the world equates to a depth and richness of experience for the speaker, and her solemn rapture before nature is enhanced by the rhyming of the final word of the first stanza ('me') with the final word of the second stanza ('ecstasy'). Interestingly, Dickinson introduces full stops to conclude each of the first two stanzas, a grammatical usage that occurs relatively rarely in her poetry. In this instance, the full stops convey the palpable impression that the speaker is pausing in contemplation and wonderment before nature. The phrase 'I clap my hands to see' in the third stanza also conveys the speaker's admiration for and eulogy of nature, as if applauding it. By the end of the poem, she can 'conclude' that the 'wonder' of nature is uplifting and rhapsodic, even if any attempt to ascertain or define what specifically moves her to solemnity would ultimately elude her.

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