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27 December 2011

If pain for peace prepares

If pain for peace prepares
Lo, what "Augustan" years
Our feet await!

If springs from winter rise,
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?

If night stands first—then noon
To gird us for the sun,
What gaze!

When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
Noons blaze!
                                                           - Fr 155 (1860)  J150

There is one underlying idea here: that the difficult prepares us, or at least precedes, the good. Pain, for example, prepares for the peace of “Augustan” years – that is, years of quiet reflection. Cold winter prepares the anemone bulbs to raise their lovely flowers in presage of spring. Long, dark nights bring such longing for sun, developing our eyes, that “Noons blaze” in glory.

There is a mathematical element here as the amount of difficulty is related to the amount of resultant good.  With all the pain we suffer in life, there must be many peaceful years ahead. Winters (at least New England winters) can be so harsh that the anemones are uncountable in their spring profusion.
               The poem builds climactically to the dramatic “Noons blaze!” The first two lines of each stanza are in stately iambic trimeter, setting a solemn tone. The last line of the first two stanzas are are dimeter iambs, rounding off the question with an image: the struggling person with tired feet; the counting of the anemones.
               But then the last two stanzas end with rhyming spondees: “What gaze!” and “Noons blaze!” The excitement, I think is to let us know that the poet has something else in  mind than a bright noon after a dark night. How brilliant heaven will seem, lit by “a thousand skies”, when we leave the darkness and toil of earth


  1. In the 19th century "development" was definitely in the philosophical air. On the Origin of Species was published the same year this poem might have been written. I wonder if Dickinson had evolution in mind at all when writing this poem. Evolution is what I think of when reading "When from a thousand skies / On our _developed_ eyes / Noons blaze!" So in my reading the thousand skies include past, present, and future ones.

    1. I like this comment and wish I'd noticed it when originally submitted! So many ways to read Dickinson, year after year.

  2. Susan, your brilliance shines like a thousand skies / for it does a path blaze TBC FYI the Johnson number appears to be #63

    1. Thanks, William -- for both the compliment and the correction.

  3. The “Augustan years”, Pax Romana, were two centuries of relative peace (27BC - 180AD), increasing prosperity from east-west trade, and maximum expanse of Roman territory and population (40 million) following Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat at sea by Augustus. (Wikipedia)

    ED’s Augustan years were 1855-1865, during which she wrote 1116 poems. The first five years witnessed painful personal transitions, but by 1860, birthdate of this poem, ‘If pain for peace prepares’, ED had committed her life to poetry with great expectations, “Lo, what "Augustan" years / Our feet await!”, equating her poems to flowers, “Can the Anemones / Be reckoned up?”, aware of her genius, “If night stands first—then noon / To gird us for the sun, / What gaze!”, promising amazing poems, “When from a thousand skies / On our developed eyes / Noons blaze!”.

    Distribution of poems by year, the earliest known manuscript of a poem determining the year in which the poem is counted.

    Year Franklin #s Total
    1850 1 1
    1852 2 1
    1853 3 1
    1854 4 1
    1858 5-47 43
    1859 48-129 82
    1860 130-183 54
    1861 184-271 88
    1862 272-498 227
    1863 499-793 295
    1864 794-891 98
    1865 892-1120 229
    1866 1121-1130 10
    1867 1131-1142 12
    1868 1143-1153 11
    1869 1154-1164 11
    I870 1165-1192 28
    1871 1193-1240 48
    1872 1241-1275 35
    1873 1276-1313 38
    1874 1314-1351 38
    1875 1352-1385 34
    1876 1386-1416 31
    1877 1417-1458 42
    1878 1459-1481 23
    1879 1482-1516 35
    1880 1517-1542 26
    1881 1543-1567 25
    1882 1568-1594 27
    1883 1595-1628 34
    1884 1629-1670 42
    1885 1671-1683 13
    1886 1684-1685 2
    ??? 1686-1789 104

    (Franklin 1998, Appendix 2, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Vol III, pp 1533-1534)

  4. Thank you for this comment. I too thought that among other subjects she is definitely (and often) talking about her poetry and poetry in general. For me, among the layered meanings, is that poetry flows out of pain, out of cold, out of darkness. Poetry is the ultimate noon, god, blessing.

    1. Yes. And today, reading the poem, I see the noons blazing from a thousand skies suggesting the firmament — each blazing star having its noon.