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02 November 2011

These are the days when Birds come back—

These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee—
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze—
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake—
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!
                                                                       - F122 (1859)  J130

I love the beginning of this poem. It moves at a stately pace, introducing the “days” before the “Birds” – a construction Dickinson follows in the second stanza as well, but with skies rather than Birds. The slow solemnity of the pacing is in keeping with the tone and meaning. The poet is somber and sacramental as Indian Summer reminds her that fall and winter are on their way.
            The “B” alliteration in the first stanza adds additional weightiness as do the caesuras – the pauses – in the second line coupled with the long-sound rhymes of “few” and “two.” The birds are on their annual migration to warmer climates, but “A very few” return. They look “backward” to the fullness of summer before moving on again.
            The second stanza continues the slow pace by using long vowels: “resume,” a  “old” (twice), “June,” “blue,” “gold,” and the “a” in “Mistake.” The “oooh” sound of “June,” “resume,” and “blue,” linger when spoken and the effect is akin to the languor of a hot and lazy day. But it would be a mistake to think the blue skies and golden sun indicate summer’s actual return. They are “sophistries” – no substance, but just the appearance of summer.
            In the next stanza the sophistries become a “fraud,” one that the poet – but not the Bee – is tempted by. But the flowers and grass have gone to seed and the trees are beginning to lose their leaves, and this reminds her that summer is indeed over. The anthropomorphism of the leaves timidly hurrying is a nice image. I picture them twirling in the breeze and then skittling along the path.
            The long vowel sounds, including the rhymes, continue throughout. The third stanza has long “e” sounds, the fourth, long “a”s and another long “e,” while the last two stanzas have slow luscious long “a”s. The poem ends in an almost worshipful note as Dickinson uses the words and imagery of solemn church ritual: “sacrament,” “Last Communion,” Sacred emblems,” and “consecrated bread.” When I read this last stanza (and the whole poem is a wonderful one to read aloud), I hear an emphasis on the word “Thy” as if the poet is contrasting the awe of partaking in a September day with that of taking communion in church – and clearly preferring the summer day.
            We’ve seen at least two of her “sacred emblems” before: the Bee (sometimes standing in for God), and the Birds (conventionally a symbol of the spirit and the Holy Spirit). Added to this are now the seeds, bearer of new life in Spring, and the falling leaf—a very gentle symbol, I think, of death.


  1. Your thorough analysis proves why you are the perfect person to help the world access Herself. Have you thought about returning when finished to add elements that might help the beginner understand how to extrapolate meaning from poetic constructs? I would buy your book!

  2. Such a considered and thoughtful reading of a wonderful poem. The entire project is wonderful. I find it endlessly rewarding. Thank you.

  3. I so much love this poem. Thanks for the close reading.

  4. I so much love this poem. Thanks for the close reading.

  5. I am puzzled by the transition from fall to communion in the last two stanzas. Is the last leaf the communion bread? What does she mean by “permit a child to join?” And what is the immortal wine compared with in fall?

    1. I wouldn't get too involved in one-to-one comparisons. Dickinson likens the lovely days of fall to something holy -- the sacrament of communion. Being full with the fall is akin to taking the bread and wine -- it's partaking of the awesome. And to great nature, aren't we all children?

  6. A religious experience, both ED’s poem and Susan’s commentary. Thank you Susan.

    Apparently, ED never took communion at church, as a child because of Christian custom or as an adult because of agnostic honesty. But both children and agnostics can joyously partake in the Sacrament of Indian-Summer, its bread and wine the golden hues and crisp cool air.