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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.


  1. Versions of Susan K's aphorism appeared in Wisconsin and Maine newspapers in 1840, and a near-verbatim quote appeared May 10, 1864, in the Beaufort Free South (Beaufort, SC): “A Loaf, like the sun, rises in the Yeast, and sets in the Vest.” Whether ED intended a humorous allusion in her 1860 poem seems unlikely.

    History explains the contradictory name, Beaufort Free South. In November 1861, the Union Navy seized control of Port Royal Harbor in Beaufort County, South Carolina, securing a beachhead for a new kind of journalism-the occupation newspaper. In January 1863, three federal treasury agents established the weekly as a business venture.

  2. We’ve all taken aptitude tests filled with logical analogy questions: A is to B as C is to D, one of the letters is a blank and the analogy is followed by 4 or 5 multiple choice fill-in-the-blank answers. ED patterned ‘Portraits are to daily faces’ as the “A is to B portion, then followed up with “As an Evening West, / To a fine, pedantic sunshine – / In a satin Vest!”. The ED lexicon defines “pedantic” pejoratively as “vain; pompous; ostentatious; showy; pretentious”.

    Surely, ED, who valued real bees and butterflies over some artist’s painting of them also valued real sunsets over painted ones, which makes her analogy exactly opposite of logical. We all know, as did she, that real expressions and intonations of a real person during conversation convey much more subtle information about that person than a photograph or painting. Is her ‘A < B as C > D’ logic backward or is she playing mind games with us?

    1. I don't think she means for us to read 'painted sunsets' but rather that hues and patterns of sunsets are more artistic, more interesting than the day's vest of sunshine.

    2. All three of us (you, me, & ED) agree that a naturally colored sunset looks better than "fine pedantic sunshine - / in a satin vest."

      However, I don’t think ED would agree with the premise that “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.”

      Rather, I think she would value a “daily face” over a portrait, but that makes her metaphor illogical.

  3. To clarify, I should have written "a natural, colored sunset".