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12 March 2012

A feather from the Whippowill

Pine Bough –
A feather from the Whippowill 
That everlasting sings –
Whose Galleries are Sunrise –  
Whose Stanzas, are the Springs— 
Whose Emerald Nest – the Ages spin –  
Of mellow – murmuring Thread –  
Whose Beryl Egg, what Schoolboys hunt –
 In "Recess," Overhead!
                                                            - F208 (1861)  161

This poem was sent to Samuel Bowles along with a spring of white pine. The long droopy  needles of this particular pine might indeed seem like feathers from the Whipoorwill. Okay, that’s just wrong. The feathers don’t look anything like pine needles in shape or color. Additionally, the Whippoorwill is a ground nester – there would be no eggs overhead in the trees. Actually, they don’t construct a nest at all, let alone an “Emerald” one. They lay egss in the leaf litter. And  if the “Schoolboys” were to find the Whippoorwill eggs they would find them brown-speckled and not “Beryl” at all!
Whippoorwill eggs
Reader's Digest's Wildlife of North America

            But let’s not make too much of this poem. It makes a nice note to a friend and shares a lovely thought about time and trees and youth. The “Whippowill” was perhaps the wrong bird to use for the pine tree image, but maybe “Whippowill” to Dickinson meant a different bird than “Whippoorwill” does to us today.
So let’s just read the poem as a nice presentation of a pine tree: An evergreen, the pine needles are “everlasting,” and since they are high in the air they have gallery seats at sunrise. Their singing is according to seasons and each stanza is complete with the Spring when new growth buds. The leaves make an “Emerald Nest” that crowns the tree and their slight rustling in the breeze create the “murmuring Thread.” The “Beryl Egg” is the cone. Now in my day boys (and girls!) would climb the tree, grab the cones and then pelt cars as they drove by, or if they were really  mean they might pelt other kids.
Green Pine Cones


  1. From these lines I imagine that Bowles once jokingly called the poet "Whippowill", referring to a bird whose song one can hear in the night without seeing the little singer, and known for its strangely accented chant. Following with this, the everlasting song is her stream of verse, which, inspired by nature ("springs" and "sunrise"), she is bold enough to indicate will bring her immortality. Further, in my interpretation, which admittedly is strained being premised on "Whippowill" being something of a joke or pet name, the emerald nest is her home near the Evergreens with the murmur of wind through pine trees knitting time. The schoolboys in recess overhead conjures for me inhabitants of a higher horizon who take delight in her poetry.
    Hmm ... "beryl egg" ... When I was growing up schoolboys played with marbles, carried them in bags. I am trying to recall what the one called beryl looked like, whether it was specked or solid. I suppose as you suggest she just got the color of the whippoorwill egg wrong. Although beryl as a color has major variants, they are solid colors.
    L. Silverwood

    1. After rereading, I want to remark that I agree with your first inclination that a pine sprig resembles a feather, especially coming from a person whose residence is ensconced amid pine trees. It is close enough at any rate to make the poem work.
      It is a poem that flows, I don't feel any big stops in the rhythm -much to the contrary, and very pleasing to the ear.
      It also occurs to me that whether or not Bowles ever teased Emily Dickinson by referring to her as a whippoorwill does not matter. The truth is that she wrote her poetry at night and was a retiring individual who traveled a little, but by and large was not seen out much. So no small wonder if she identified with a whippoorwill.

      The "beryl egg" is still a problem, but just go with her on that one and imagine the whippoorwill's egg to be the color of a robin's and the imagery all ties up nicely in this little jewel of a poem.
      L. Silverwood

    2. It's been fun re-reading this "little jewel" with your comments -- thank you! It does seem as if Dickinson is writing Bowles as the "whippowill" who sings of sunrise and springs and spins a lovely nest up in the air. The last bit with the eggs might just be a Dickinsonian twist to bring the poem back down to earth as if it really were about a bird.

      However, I'm going to stick with the thought that the whippowill is a metaphor for the feathery, murmuring pine with its beryl egg cones.

      I agree that the poem is very pleasing to the ear -- flows like the whispering pine or whippowill.

  2. "Whose galleries are Sunrise" sounds more like sunrise is the daily audience for its songs!

    1. Agreed. And if Dickinson is referring to herself as the singing bird, it makes even more sense as she was an inveterate sunrise watcher.

  3. I totally misinterpreted this poem, not knowing that the Whippoorwill was a ground bird. I thought it dropped its feather from the pine bough, reminding the poet of the emerald nest above spun from the ages, whose inhabitant sings eternal music, and whose egg the hunting schoolboys would never be able to reach on "recess".

    But after reading your illuminating blog (thanks again) I can see that this is a kind of riddle poem. It appears this is the rare Dickinson poem with a title. It's as if the riddle presented here was going to be too tough for even Bowles, and so she gave it away from the start.

    Incidentally this poem dovetails beautifully with Sarah Orne Jewett's "White Heron", which I just finished. Also about a pine trees' "galleries".

    1. Wonderful story. Thanks for reminding me of it. Now I'm going to read it again!

  4. An interpretation of a poem to Sam.

    There is no title on the poem to Bowles (F208A).
    With ED's spelling of Whippoorwill.
    There was a fascicle of pine needles enclosed.

    A poem from the Whippowil,
    Who constantly composes -
    Whose fascicles enlighten -
    Whose stanzas quench thirst -
    Whose nest of Nature – Ages spin -
    Of mellow, murmuring threads of words -
    Whose sounds are sought by boys like Bowles -
    In visions of eternity!

    Note F208A signed “Emily”

  5. Modern ornithologists have settled on the hyphenated common name "eastern Whip-poor-will" for this species (Antrostomus vociferus). It is also called "whip-o-will", "whip o' will", etc.).

    ED's manuscript clearly reads "Whippowil", not "Whippowill" as Franklin, Johnson, and Susan K published it and not "Whippoorwill" as most lay birders spell it. Oddly, the poem's editors add the second "l" but omit the second "o", a misspelled "correction".

  6. ED's spelling of "Whippowil" was not standard for her day:

    ‘Poems by William Cullen Bryant’, 1849.

    ‘The White-Footed Deer’, Stanza 5

    And here, when sang the whippoorwill,
    She cropped the sprouting leaves,
    And here her rustling steps were heard
    On still October eves.

  7. ED's Webster exonerates her spelling:

    WHIP'PO-WIL, a. (ED’s Webster)
    The popular name of an American bird, so called from its note, or the sounds of its voice; a species of Caprimulgus. [Not whip-poor-will.]