Search This Blog

29 November 2011

Bring me the sunset in a cup

Bring me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning's flagons up
And say how many Dew,
Tell me how far the morning leaps—
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadth of blue!

Write me how many notes there be
In the new Robin's ecstasy
Among astonished boughs—
How many trips the Tortoise makes—
How many cups the Bee partakes,
The Debauchee of Dews!

Also, who laid the Rainbow's piers,
Also, who leads the docile spheres
By withes of supple blue?
Whose fingers string the stalactite—
Who counts the wampum of the night
To see that none is due?

Who built this little Alban House
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who'll let me out some gala day
With implements to fly away,
Passing Pomposity?
                                                                  -  F140 (1860)  128

I read this poem as a response to the mighty words in Job – the book in the Bible where Job has been tormented to test his faith. Some religious men come to give the miserable Job comfort (he has lost his family, his crops and animals, his health, and his sanity), but they only anger him. After Job cries out, at some length and with great poetic and metaphoric force, God himself finally comes to make an answer. God’s answer to Job is that Job, being human, is in a position to know nothing. God makes his point by asking a series of rhetorical questions, for example:

38:12 Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place …
16 Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
19 Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof …
22 Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail …
28 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
29 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
39: 1  Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?
13 Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?

William Blake: God answering Job
from a whirlwind
Dickinson’s questions are marvelously rephrased in human, indeed womanly terms – the terms of one who thinks and writes much about birds and skies, mornings and dew. God asks Job if Job has “caused the dayspring to know his place,” while the poet asks “how far the morning leaps” and “Who spun the breadth of blue.” Most of Job is taken up with Job’s sense of suffering, his bewilderment at having been seemingly abandoned by God, and yet his unshakeable faith in God; and with the false comforters’ telling him in various ways that he must have done something to cause his misery, that he isn’t humble enough, etc. All of this speechifying is done in strings of stunning metaphors.
            So, too, does Dickinson employ one metaphor or figure of speech after another. The Bee, greedy with thirst, is anthropomorphized as “The Debauchee of Dews!” The Rainbows rest on “piers” like a giant arch. the planets, “docile spheres,” are led like lambs by fetters of sky (“withes” are supple willow twigs and branches). Stars are “wampum of the night.” There are clearly no answers to Dickinson’s rhetorical questions that would be any different than God’s answer to Job.
            The last stanza has a shift in the nature of the questions. Here the poet, like Job, has turned to question God, asking why she has been imprisoned in a body, her “little Alban [or ‘white’] House” where she is unable to see the true nature of things. Her more piercing question is whether after death there will be “some gala day” when she will be free to transcend mortal limitations and “fly away.” She adds at the end that if she does fly free she will pass “Pomposity” and that I take to mean the false counsel and empty wisdom of the sort of religious men who came to deliver their pompous and self-righteous “comfort” to Job.
            It’s a marvelous poem, full of the delight of life and the passion to understand more. In that, it is like light versus dark compared with Job whose bitterness and misery reveal a soul tortured to the limit. 

Note: Composer and blog reader Ken Neufeld has created a beautiful choral rendition of this poem:


  1. Hi Susan,

    Next week I'll be teaching my tenth consecutive Young Writers Academy at Humboldt State University. I've put a spin on the well-known lesson plan in which one begins by copying the first line, "Bring me the sunset . . ." My lesson is called The Sultan Speaks!--write a poem in which you command (or ask) that things be brought to you. I know that sultans still exist, and I suppose some people might take offense at my approach, since no doubt some sultans are not all commandy (new word). I'm taking the "romantic," Western view of the past.

    Looking up the poem, I came across your impressive blog, and want to say it looks great.

    We just finished another Lost Coast Writers Retreat where you were mentioned once again. Hope all is well Down Under!

  2. Dan! The lesson plan sounds fun. I know you've enjoyed the 10 years -- and I bet a lot of Humboldt kids have benefited. Ari and I are moving to Bay Area in Sept and I'll be up in Arcata regularly. See you then, I hope!
    I'm glad you ran across my blog.

  3. Yes, I've loved the experience of teaching kids who choose to write during their vacations. I expect to use your insightful notes about this Dickinson poem when I teach them. This is quite a project you have going here.

    It's great to know you're headed back to California! It would be excellent to catch up in person. Good luck with the move, and let me know if I can be of any help with transferring continents.

  4. can you say me the literary elements of these poem?

  5. "Tell me how far the morning leaps"

    Sometimes just one line of an ED poem will grab me and not let go. This one I'd like to spray paint on the side of the Lincoln Tunnel for all of those drivers slowly crawling through. It's one of those lines that can make you wonder, and perhaps inspire a transformative answer.

  6. Compelling explication. Thank you Susan.

    BYU’s ED Lexicon lists the figurative first definition of “pomposity” as “mortality; earthly existence”; if true here, “Passing Pomposity” implies Leaving Life rather than Discounting “false counsel and empty wisdom”. Given Job’s KJV text, the “false counsel and empty wisdom” of Job’s friends feels more likely.

    My favorite line is ED’s audacious imperative mood, “Bring me the sunset in a cup”, spoken as if she were god. Hmmm, now that's a thought.

  7. My wife’s favorite lines, and mine, are those of the robin’s astonishing song.