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12 January 2012

I can't tell you – but you feel it –

I can't tell you – but you feel it –
Nor can you tell me –
Saints, with ravished slate and pencil
Solve our April Day!

Sweeter than a vanished frolic
From a vanished green!
Swifter than the hoofs of Horsemen
Round a Ledge of dream!

Modest, let us walk among it
With our faces veiled –
As they say polite Archangels
Do in meeting God!

Not for me – to prate about it!
Not for you – to say
To some fashionable Lady
"Charming April Day"!

Rather – Heaven's "Peter Parley"!
By which Children slow
To sublimer Recitation
Are prepared to go!
                                                F164 (1860)   65

Dickinson treats the “April Day” with sweet reverence. The day, so full of spring and hope and joy presages the joy of heaven. The idea of heaven is introduced in the second half of the first stanza. The poet begins by admitting she can’t adequately express what is so special about April, nor does she expect her audience to do any better. But she calls on the Saints – those departed Christians so long in the grave that their school slates and pencils are “ravished” by time – to “solve” the sense of wonderful reverence. The saints can also give their heavenly perspective, for April is often the month of Easter--rebirth and resurrection.
Spring in Mona Vale
            She goes on from a future stance, looking back on earthly springs as a “vanished frolic” and the days of spring passing as quickly as horses through a dream. The third stanza takes her back to earth and she calls on us to walk in modest awe as if about to encounter the Deity himself. After all, would you stop some “fashionable Lady” and babble on about what a nice day it is? (Well, maybe you would – I would, but this isn’t Victorian era New England). Instead, we should take out our childhood primers (Peter Parley wrote children’s books) so that even if we are “slow” at grasping the sublime, we may be properly prepared.
            The poem begins with a bit of a whisper: “I can’t tell you – but you feel it –,” and then turns into a cheerful anticipation of the joys to come. The first and fourth stanzas echo each other with the “not me – not you” direct addresses to the reader. The entire poem has a comradely air as the poet addresses the reader directly – as if we were strolling arm in arm with Emily Dickinson on a glorious spring day!


  1. Isn't the Peter Parley reference really to all the texts of beautiful, "written" by Heaven for us to "read" and contemplate, learn (in that sense a primer) rather than just to gush over it to some fashionable Lady? So Heaven's Peter Parley is the Creator; the April Day his text.

    1. Yes, I think the lovely April day does serve as a primer for Heaven -- I'm not sure why I didn't write that -- seems obvious once you point it out. So thanks for the insight.

      It seems to me, though, that she is using "Peter Parley" as a way of saying "primer", and that this particular primer is the April day.

  2. This was a tough one for me. I wasn't sure if the "Solve our April day" and the "Peter Parley" references weren't being sarcastic. I appreciate your perspective. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for the interpretation. Wish you can read the poem. Because I've been looking for the audio version of the poem for long since English isn't my first language. I'd like to hear how a native English speaker read it.

  4. Brava. I love your arm and arm. May I join the other arm and go along? If I may.

    Emily, you can't tell me the answer to the riddle of the April Day, why? Because we have to find out for ourselves I presume. And is this what the saints are doing when they "ravish" their writing? And is that what Emily is doing here, Susan, ravishing us with her writing? Is she subtly allowing herself Sainthood? Sainting herself? How immodest. But still, she knows that she can only hint, can't be the saint for anyone but herself. It's in the ravishing though, it seems, that the April Day gets solved. What gets solved is the "vanished frolic", the way loss is embedded in and inextricable from joy. It's the bittersweet, but overwhelming joy. And that terrible "swiftness" of the hooves too, so exciting, so bitter. But all just a dream? No, look closer, it's not just a dream at all. You are riding on the "ledge" of a dream, looking in from where? Reality? What a stunning image. Swift hooves of time on the ledge of a dream.

    It may be the overwhelmingly happy/sad nature of it I think that leads to the request for modesty, for the veil. (A good study would be Emily's use of veils in her poetry, and of her poetry as veil.) But it's also saying to me that we've been intimate together, in the divine, and that is best left "secret". Again in the third paragraph Emily compares us (all of us involved in this poem) to the divine, to angels this time, ARCHangels.

    But why not say "charming day" to the fashionable ladies though? Is it because fashionable ladies just won't get it? I've noticed fashionable ladies are a little judgy. So just keep your saintly bliss between you and I, in the realm of poetry, the realm of the dream.

    Instead of upsetting those fashionable ladies with our unfashionable bonhomie, let us instead go to the Poem, to the the primer, to the parley (in the french sense) of St. Peter. See also page 41 of the Smithsonian's copy of the Peter Parley Primer.

    But the Primer here is "heaven's" primer, which is the April Day that this Saint is trying to solve for herself. Is this poem "heaven's primer?" Or is heaven just a ruse?
    "By which children slow/ to sublimer recitation" is such a wonderful phrase to slow down to. How can you not slow down when you get to that latinate mouthful. But also, you want to slow down and say it out loud. Slowing down: a key to solving the Day.

    Also, where is it we're "going" in that last stanza? I suppose she means, on one hand, to a kind of heaven, through this primer, on a walk arm and arm, as you say, on this "glorious spring day". (which has already vanished like a dream.)

    But here is where I think she is being, perhaps, purposely contravalent.

    There is a second possible meaning to "slow" here. You might also interpret that last stanza as meaning that the children who use a primer to get to heaven are slow to "sublimer" recitations, something more sublime than just a simple heaven, which would be the reality imbued in the stark past tense "vanished"...


    Thank you for taking the walk. It's been terribly wonderful.

    1. Oh, arm in arm, indeed, Splendid Commenter! Oh, to be brought face to page again to the ravished and vanished imagery of this poem. I love your words on the hoofs of Horsemen -- but are we, perhaps, hearing the beating gallop from our perch within dream... our safe dreams circled by rushing live drama?

      I realize I do not know how to solve the April Day but I am rather dazzled by what emerges from your comment about secret intimacies in the divine.

      I'm also now seeing more meaning in 'slow' -- as perhaps one must slow, adopt a less fevered pace, to achieve the 'sublimer Recitation'.

      Thank you for joining this walk.

  5. Envious of commenter “Anonymous” (6/10/22).
    Writes loose as a goose and sublime at the same time.

  6. Kornfeld, Preest, and Anonymous (6/10/2022) nail ‘I can't tell you – but you feel it – ’ (F164), but scholars assiduously avoid it. Too artsy-fartsy, or a mystical experience too intimate to discuss, uncomfortable because inexplicable?

    Even ED shies from too close examination of a similar summer day in F164’s sibling, ‘A something in a summer's Day’ (F104), knowing, examined too closely, the feeling vanishes:

    “And still within a summer's night
    A something so transporting bright
    I clap my hands to see—

    “Then veil my too inspecting face
    Lest such a subtle—shimmering grace
    Flutter too far for me—

    “So looking on—the night—the morn
    Conclude the wonder gay—
    And I meet, coming thro' the dews
    Another summer's Day!”

  7. thank you for this! I read from the poem some reflection on a child's capacity for wonder in nature - are they more "prepared" than adults to "solve our April Day" or even see it as not a problem to solve at all? I love how Dickinson's poems hold so much, and it's a joy to read different interpretations.