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07 November 2011

Besides the Autumn poets sing

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze –

A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr. Bryant's "Golden Rod" –
And Mr. Thomson's "sheaves."

Still, is the bustle in the Brook –
Sealed are the spicy valves –
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves –

Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!
                                                    J131,  Fr123 (1859)  131

The elegiac tone of this poem befits the autumn mood. Although summer is gone, there are still a few “prosaic” days between the hazy light of late summer and the snowfall of winter. The mornings and evenings are crisp – “incisive” and “Ascetic,” and the “Brook” is no longer tumbling with summer rains. The “Elves” are lulled into sleep.
            David Preest points out that “Mr. Bryant’s ‘Golden Rod’”  is a reference to William Bryant’s poem “the Death of the Flowers.” The pertinent part follows:

The wind-flower and the violet, they perished long ago,
And the brier-rose and the orchis died amid the summer glow;
But on the hills the golden-rod, and the aster in the wood,
And the yellow sun-flower by the brook in autumn beauty stood,
Till fell the frost from the clear cold heaven, as falls the plague on men,
And the brightness of their smile was gone, from upland, glade, and glen.

But in this poem, even the golden rods, still blooming in Bryants poem, are gone.
Preest names James Thompson’s poem “The Seasons” as the reference for the “sheaves.” The reference here isn’t so clear, but he does write:

Fair AUTUMN, yellow rob'd! I'll sing of thee,
Of thy last, temper'd, Days, and sunny Calms;
When all the golden Hours are on the Wing,
Attending thy Retreat, and round thy Wain,
Slow-rolling, onward to the Southern Sky.

            The last stanza, however, makes it clear that this is not just a poem about the passing of the seasons but a meditation on the influence of the seasons on our deepest feelings. Autumn, as Dickinson writes in various poems, is a season of piercing beauty and piercing sadness. Winter is deprivation, hardship and often depression. Summer is golden fullness, a ripe happiness. The poet prays that she can keep this golden mood despite the blustery and windy cold of winter. 


  1. Well said. I wonder if Dickinson may have put "sheaves" in quotation to mark what now feels like a buried reference to sheaving (collecting and bundling of grains or grasses) in Thomson's poem signaled by "round thy Wain" -- since a wain can be a four-wheeled wagon that farmers have used to collect heavy bundles of grain or grass. Thomson's images create a stark contrast between the winged and plentiful "golden Hours" and the slow, plodding drudgery of loading sheaves. Dickinson's poem reminds me of her reference to "old sophistries of June" (Fr122) when she evokes autumn as a "blue and gold mistake," a fraud. Now, even the warmest rooms of an October day are skated with brittle sounds that leave one disbelieving in the sky's pledges of blue.

    1. What a lovely time of year to be revisiting this poem. Thank you for the discussion of Thomson's poem -- germane, I agree. One thing I noticed this time around is the specificity of the time of year. It is past autumn's ripeness (the Haze) but before the cold snow. There is a quiet, almost dull hiatus -- the days are 'prosaic'. There's a lonely quality to the poem, summed by the wistful hope that there might remain a few squirrels also caught in the stillness of this limbo.

  2. What are spicy valves? Like maple trees?

    1. Good question! I checked the ED Lexicon and found this:

      Shell; case; pericarp; outer coat; seed vessel; covering of a capsule; leaflet of the calyx and corol in a plant; [fig.] bloom; blossom; flower.
      Fr123/J131 Sealed are the spicy valves

      So perhaps she was referring to buds that harden off for winter (like rhododendron)

  3. Mr. Bryant’s “Golden Rod” had to allude to his “Death of the Flowers” as that is the only poem he wrote containing these words. However, Mr. (James) Thomson's "sheaves” probably alludes to his pastoral poem, AUTUMN (1730), although he does use the word in two other less-likely poems (CAPS mine):
    Soon as the morning trembles o’er the sky,
    And unperceived unfolds the spreading day,
    Before the ripened field the reapers stand
    In fair array, each by the lass he loves,
    To bear the rougher part and mitigate
    By nameless gentle offices her toil.
    At once they stoop, and swell the lusty SHEAVES;
    While through their cheerful band the rural talk,
    The rural scandal, and the rural jest
    Fly harmless, to deceive the tedious time
    And steal unfelt the sultry hours away.
    Thomson, James. Complete Works of James Thomson. (p. 135). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.

  4. ED was 28 when she composed this poem and well aware of the sexual connotation of Thomson's reaper and the “lass he loves” who “stoop, and swell the lusty sheaves”, while the other reapers “stand / In fair array” and enjoy “the rural talk, / The rural scandal, and the rural jest”.

  5. A lovely prayer asking for inner strength in a world growing colder – Help me, Lord, keep an Orchis’ heart to bear the coming winter.