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17 March 2012

The Skies can't keep their secret!

The Skies can't keep their secret!

They tell it to the Hills –
The Hills just tell the Orchards –
And they—the Daffodils!

A Bird – by chance – that goes that way – 

Soft overhears the whole – 

If I should bribe the little Bird – 

Who knows but she would tell?

I think I won't – however – 

It's finer – not to know –

If Summer were an Axiom – 

What sorcery had snow?

So keep your secret – Father!
I would not – if I could – 

Know what the Sapphire Fellows, do,

In your new-fashioned world!

                                                            F213 (1861)  191

Dickinson creates an anthropomorphised world that bustles with news and gossip. The skies spill the beans – no doubt in the form of rain. The freshly watered hills wake up the daffodils from their sleeping bulbs. The birds are back and see it all. Spring is coming and word spreads fast. The poet, however, declines the opportunity to get the news by bribing a little bird. Her rationale isn’t that bribery is immoral but that she would really prefer not to know. Dickinson often uses spring as a metaphor for rebirth, and that is the central metaphor of this poem. Would she choose to learn when spring is coming and what it will bring? Would she choose to know when she will die and what will happen? No, she concludes: “It’s finer – not to know.”
Daffodils welcoming spring
Sarah Laurence
            Dickinson again chooses the naturalist’s approach to the world rather than the academic’s or theologian’s. She observes in rich detail but is quite reluctant to draw conclusions. Better, to her, the wonder than to have the Latin names and dry scientific knowledge. I suppose this is a poet’s eye, looking at each event, each bit of the world that catches the eye, afresh. Those of us who name, categorize, and systemetize  inject at least one layer between us and the actual world. This preference for questions over answers is one reason why we love our poets!
            And so this poet tells God, her “Father,” that she doesn’t want to know the hidden truths: the day spring finally arrives, or what summer will bring, or what happens when souls are reborn. It’s better, she says,  to let those “Sapphire” skies bring surprises.
            She asks a rather difficult question in the penultimate stanza: “If Summer were an Axiom,  / What sorcery had snow?” An axiom is a self-evident truth, something that goes without saying. Sorcery, of course, represents mystery and magic. If Summer in all its bounty becomes so predictable and common as to lose its mystery, what fascinations could winter possibly bring? The cold, lifeless snow stands here for death, just as spring is rebirth and summer life or eternal life. In a very light-hearted way, Dickinson is saying that since she really doesn’t want to know when her death will come and what happens after death, she won’t ask any questions about the glories of being alive right now, of being able to feel the rain and watch the flowers grow.


  1. Enjoyed your interpretation here and the project generally, thank you.

  2. Having just encountered this poem, rereading John Fowles’ ‘The Aristos’ (for the umpteenth time), your commentary has helped clarify my thoughts mightily!

    1. Now that is a comment that begs amplification! (Particularly since I have never read The Aristos)

    2. In a nutshell (and this is a massive over-simplification), Fowles is discussing, firstly, why humanity (feels it) needs (to believe in) gods; and then goes on to discuss the unknowable – especially death: both how we cannot know what happens after it, and how, once dead, we cannot know what came before it: that is, that we existed.

      ‘The Aristos’ is all in note form; and one in this section (entitled ‘The Godgame’) cryptically just reads: “Emily Dickinson: ‘If summer were an axiom, what sorcery had snow.’” – and I wanted to know why he had included it there.

      Google led me to your blog, and your lucid explanation of how you understood the poem – which has always slightly puzzled me in its switch from everyday language to almost-mysticism (something she does quite often (I am currently studying Copland’s setting of eight of her poems…)) – and I suddenly ‘got it’!

      You made it seem so obvious… – but, of course, poetry is defined by its complexities, many-meaning words, and ability to be relevant/interpreted in different ways: so we may both be wrong! But I have a feeling that you got it right… – or at least helped me see what I hadn’t before. So, thank you, again!

      PS: I hope this has helped… – although I have a feeling reading Fowles’ book may contextualise things immensely?!

      PPS: When I am not stuck typing into my phone, I shall come back for your interpretations of the verses Copland set so marvellously. (There is a wonderful recording by Orchestra of the Swan – I may be biased, as I am their Writer-in-Reticence… – with the miracle that is April Fredrick: a soprano from Wisconsin, who has also studied Dickinson.)

    3. That is very interesting -- thank you so much! I will look up the OOTS recording. I've only heard the Copland pieces once and that was long ago. What a lovely thing to be -- their writer (one I hope not too reticent).

  3. Ah -- loved the Dickinson verse and your explication of it Susan!
    "It's finer --not to know--" How compactly she states her complex embrace of mystery that delights in the thickening of plots and is watchful for Spoilers. I imagine God holding a bouquet of omniscience behind his back like a suitor intending to surprise this perverse poetess and instead being surprised by her (again). How wonderfully haughty she sounds, how deliciously disinterested as she spins on her heel and walks away exercising her right not to know. I imagine the bouquet wilted a little-- and God chuckled :)

  4. If summer were an axiom - if truth, by being revealed, became crystallized and static, then when conditions changed (winter comes w snow) it would have to be explained by sorcery - supernatural intervention. If your thinking is rooted in nature (and it’s transitori-ness) do you want to let in the super-natural?

  5. ED takes pride in old-fashioned proclivities and chides God for his new-fashioned world. She would rather not know the details of how “the Sapphire Fellows”, blue skies, cause spring. “It's finer - not to know”.

    Did she feel scientific knowing would interfere with poetic knowing? Would she deny climate-change today? Or simply ignore it?