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27 January 2012

Portraits are to daily faces

Portraits are to daily faces
As an Evening West,
To a fine, pedantic sunshine –
In a satin Vest!
                                                - F174 (1860)  170

Dickinson must be thinking of those portrait painters who specialized in bringing out the inner interestingness or beauty or whatnot of their subjects. The portrait looks intriguing and fine; the person in the flesh – not so much. It’s hard to look grand or intriguing with your “daily face.”
            The second stanza takes the same idea but applies it to sunset vs. day. The gorgeous skies streaked with pink, lavender and crimson imply an artist’s hand. The sky is beautifully alive and also represents that limnal time between the work-a-day afternoon and the promises of the evening and night.
            In an interesting conflation, she compares the fascinations of sunset to an anthropomorphized day: it struts about pedantically in its “satin Vest” like a satisfied banker about to lecture you on the value of saving. It’s a nice economy: Dickinson gets double use from the image – both from the sun as a smug and satisfied daily presence as well as from the first line with its “daily faces.”  There is a lot packed into this little poem and it has a clever wit that demands a bit of thought.
She uses trochaic meter, perhaps because of the strength of beginning the poem on an accented syllable. “Portraits” is a strong word and kickstarts the poem. The corresponding word, “West,” is given extra emphasis at the end of line two. Because it butts up against another accented syllable, “To,” the tongue lingers over it.
The poem is written in alternating tetrameter and trimeter, so “West” is cutting off the second line one syllable too early (dropping a syllable from a meter scheme is called “catalexis). The last line, similarly, ends with “Vest” and cuts off a syllable. Poets often try to end a line with a strong word, and this one is made even stronger because of the rhyme with West.
And that reminds me of how as a child I remembered which direction the sun rose and set:
The sun is like a bun: it rises in the Yeast and sets behind the Vest.

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