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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.