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04 April 2012

Musicians wrestle everywhere –

Musicians wrestle everywhere – 

All day – among the crowded air

I hear the silver strife – 

And – waking – long before the morn –
Such transport breaks upon the town

I think it that "New Life"!

It is not Bird – it has no nest – 

Nor "Band" – in brass and scarlet – drest – 

Nor Tamborin – nor Man – 

It is not Hymn from pulpit read – 

The "Morning Stars" the Treble led

On Time's first Afternoon!

Some – say – it is "the Spheres" – at play!

Some say that bright Majority

Of vanished Dames – and Men!

Some – think it service in the place

Where we – with late – celestial face – 

Please God – shall ascertain!
                                                                               F229 (1861)  157

Music surrounds us, and were we sensitively attuned, we might listen beyond the noises of a waking town, singing birds, brass bands, or church hymns. The poet hears something transporting or transcendentally beautiful beyond the terrestrial sounds that crowd the air all day long. Even before she wakes, before dawn, she hears such rapturous noise that she’s convinced it must be the dawning of “’New Life!’”
            But if all these wrestling musical sounds aren’t birds and bands, etc., what is it? At the end of the first stanza Dickinson postulates that it is “New Life!” as if the world were being born anew each day. At the end of the second she suggests the music might be the song of “’Morning Stars’” on the first Afternoon of creation. This is a reference to the Biblical book of Job where God asks, “Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth…..when the morning stars sang together, and all the Sons of God shouted for joy?” (38: 4-7). A hymn written in 1849 by J. Montgomery refers to those verses. Dickinson may well have been thinking of such a hymn, led by “the Treble,” or the sopranos and other high voices. The Treble also suggests the Holy Trinity – the Three. The hymn begins:
The morning stars in concert sang,

When God created heaven and earth;

And earth and heaven with music rang,

When angels hail'd Messiah's birth.

from cover of Daniel Boorstein's book The Discoverers
Celestial planes and spheres are outside the
plane of earth, moon, sun and visible stars.
Each contributes its notes to a cosmic symphony
In the third stanza Dickinson refers to the Music, or Harmony, of the Spheres – an idea first introduced by Pythagorus (570 – 495 BCE).  This ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher felt that since heavenly bodies moved according to mathematical equations, and since music can be analyzed mathematically, that each celestial body had its own hum or set of notes. Consequently, although this music is inaudible to human ears, it would produce a heavenly symphony.
            The poet ends by suggesting that the musical “transport” she wakes up to is the singing of the Saints – the departed “Dames – and Men!” who now sing in heaven. This would be the “service” (as in church service) that she hopes will someday go in order to ascertain the heavenly source for ourselves.
          So take your pick: world re-born, heavenly hymn of praise, music of the spheres, or singing of the saints. I think it most likely that Dickinson felt all four are present should we only listen past the mundane noises to hear them.


  1. I felt when reading this poem that Dickinson was referring to the music as being of some divine sign: God speaking. Perhaps, the music being God's voice answering our prayers. The lines in which she's guessing to what the music could be in the third stanza she states, "Some say that bright majority of vanished dames and men!" which could either praise those (as you said) listening past the mudane noises to hear their prayers answered and restore their faith, or it could be the soul's of the departed coming back in light with God's renewal. When reading this poem it reminded me of another, "When I hoped I feared", which I had always interpreted as her trying to justify God's elusiveness to her prayers. This poem almost seems to be an answer to her previous doubts if God was really hearing her, when, with her excitement at suddenly being able to hear his answers, she realizes God is there.

  2. I meant to say there was a connection for me between this poem and "Prayer is the little Implement", rather than "When I hoped I feared".

  3. I think this is more the divine signs - the opening reference is, I believe, to the biblical scene of Jacob wrestling with the angel (and winning!) This makes sense of the "silver strife" that allows "new life" to prevail despite the "crowded air" of mundane existence. From a religious perspective this builds on Emily's own mystical (and often quasi-pantheistic) interpretations of the divine. However, the musician here is equally an evocation of the creative impulse toward the infinite expanses of time (from the morning stars at the point of creation to to the meeting of "celestial face") and space (the music of the spheres, at a planetary level (which, pre space travel era, must have seemed aeons away). This wrestling with the divine is not only a reference to creative inspiration but also the point of access to all that lies beyond the physical world of everyday duty (the crowded air) and nature (birds) and established religion (pulpits). This "strife" is "silver" - precious - because it carries the musician (or poet - Emily worked in the wee hours) into the world of the sacred, into history (along with the vanished Dames and men) and ultimately toward a kind of creative salvation where creativity suffices as religious conversion in the projected afterlife. Just as Jacob was renamed Israel in the biblical story, the musician/poet is transformed into one of the "bright majority" whose songs we continue to cherish long beyond the existential wrestling match that provoked them.

  4. Thank you for the many rich insights. I’ve returned to your commentary several times.

  5. ED imagines musicians wrestling everywhere.
    She claims she hears “silver” music all day
    And even long before day when she wakes;
    She thinks the music emanates from
    “That New Life” in Heaven!

    It’s not a bird, a band, a tambourine,
    Nor a human or a hymn from a pulpit,
    Nor angels singing on
    Time’s first Afternoon!

    Some say the music is the planets at play,
    Some say it’s our vanished ancestors,
    Some think it’s a church service in Heaven,
    Where we, if it pleases God, will one day
    Learn for certain the music’s source.

    (Until then, ED will gladly accept its inspiration.)

  6. Thanks for your always insightful interpretations of ED’s poetry. I have a slightly different reading of the second stanza here, though. From stanza 1, we know ED is hearing something beyond the silver strife of daily life. I read stanza 2 to then explain that the transcendent music is “not bird… nor man.” The references to “nest,” “band,” and “tamborin” describe the absent birds. “Nest” is easy, but I read “Band” - her quotes - to mean the bands of scarlet or gold on a bird’s feathers, “drest” up just like music bands dress on parade. And I think “Tamborin” is a metaphor for bird song. The only other time Emily uses “tamborin” in her poetry - according to the E.D. Lexicon - is in F176 where the narrator uses a “tambourin” in order to sound like the birds (as part of a bribe scheme!) So the transcendent sound is “not Bird,” and nor is it Man, who sings the 1849 hymn “Morning Stars” from the pulpit.

    Having dispensed with what the transcendent music is not, she offers 3 things people think it might be: the music of the spheres, of our ancestors, or of church service where we go with “celestial face” to “Please God.”

    So what is it? That leaves the final 2 words: “shall Ascertain.” What a mysterious ending! The “I” from stanza 1 is implicitly back, and it is she who will ascertain what special sounds she hears beyond the “silver strife” of daily existence.

    Or something like that.

    1. Yes, we'll figure it out at the end ... she hopes ... or something like that! Love it.