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20 March 2012

On this long storm the Rainbow rose –

On this long storm the Rainbow rose –
On this late morn –  the sun –
The Clouds –  like listless Elephants –
Horizons –  straggled down –

The Birds rose smiling, in their nests –
The gales –  indeed –  were done –
Alas, how heedless were the eyes –
On whom the summer shone!

The quiet nonchalance of death –
No Daybreak –  can bestir –
The slow –  Archangel's syllables
Must awaken her!
                                                            F216  (1861)   194

Archangel Michael
Colin de Coter, 1393
The parting gesture of the storm, a lovely rainbow, welcomes the morning sun. The day promises to be peaceful, unlike the storm the night before. The world is bathed in sun, bird song from the newly-wakened birds, and big puffy clouds slowly disappearing down the horizon as the sky clears. But there is one woman who has died, perhaps during the storm, who is “heedless” now to the  beauties of a clear summer day. No “Daybreak” can rouse her from her grave. It will take the Archangel Michael, thought to be the Archangel of Resurrection and of weighing souls, to finally wake her up.

            Death is not portrayed as a tragedy here, though. Yes, it’s sad that the woman can’t see the new day and its beauties. But she is in a state of “quiet nonchalance” – which doesn’t seem so bad. It’s a good thing, too, as in other of Dickinson’s poems people wait in their graves for eons until resurrection day. In “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” the dead saints wait while “Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And firmaments – row.”
Clearing of a storm
Maurice de Vlaminck, 1912
            The poem is written in standard ballad form. It begins as a traditional ballad: a story is being told and there are elements of drama. It’s very visual in the story telling. But the mood changes in the third stanza when the poet “tells” us that someone has died. The momentum of the poem comes to an abrupt end and we get a bit of a lesson. I’m not sure it adds much to the poem.  


  1. Thank you for ur interpretation. When I read this poem, the second stanza, I thought “Alas, how heedless were the eyes-On whom the summer shone” was relating to the birds who had survived the storm and now felt carefree in the summer sun. Your interpretation makes more sense. Thank you.

  2. For ED to say in this poem, “summer shone”, seems superfluous

    The Birds rose smiling, in their nests –
    The gales – indeed – were done –
    Alas, how heedless were the eyes –
    On whom the summer shone!

    She has mentioned summer's significance in poem after poem (F1-F216 inclusive, my terra cognito).

    Summer for thee, grant I may be
    When Summer days are flown!
    Thy music still, when Whipowil [sic]
    And Oriole—are done!

    A something in a summer's Day
    As slow her flambeaux burn away
    Which solemnizes me.

    A something in a summer's noon—
    A depth—an Azure—a perfume—
    Transcending ecstasy.

    And still within a summer's night
    A something so transporting bright
    I clap my hands to see—
    So looking on—the night—the morn
    Conclude the wonder gay—
    And I meet, coming thro' the dews
    Another summer's Day!

    She dropt as softly as a star
    From out my summer's Eve –
    Less skillful than Le Verriere
    It's sorer to believe!

    If they would linger for a Bird
    My Tambourin were soonest heard
    Among the April Woods!
    Unwearied, all the summer long,
    Only to break in wilder son
    When Winter shook the boughs!

    In Ebon Box, when years have flown
    To reverently peer –
    Wiping away the velvet dust
    Summers have sprinkled there!

    Inebriate of air – am I –
    And Debauchee of Dew –
    Reeling – through endless summer days –
    From inns of molten Blue.

    I think I won't – however –
    It's finer – not to know –
    If Summer were an Axiom –
    What sorcery had snow?

    1. Nice to have the examples presented!

    2. Back to F216, the poem at hand.

      The first six lines of ‘On this long storm the Rainbow rose’ paint an ecstatic summer morn: the long storm broke, the sun popped out, and blue heaven filled with elephantine cumuli, straggling listlessly horizonward. Suddenly Line 7 abandons summer sun for death’s nonchalance, where heedless eyes no daybreak can bestir. No eager archangel’s syllables greet those eyes at Heaven’s Gate, no reassuring “Will waken her”. Only ED’s doubtful imperative, “Must waken her”, commands archangel hospitality.

      Could she be telling us, “Choose Life’s Light over Death’s Darkness”?

  3. At first missed the significance of “Must” in the last line. With the exclamation mark and emphasis on”her” it sounds more like an angry command instead of a quiet belief.