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07 April 2012

A slash of Blue!
 A sweep of Gray!

A slash of Blue!  A sweep of Gray!
Some scarlet patches – on the way –
Compose an evening sky –  

A little purple – slipped between –  
Some Ruby Trousers – hurried on –  
A Wave of Gold –  A Bank of Day –  
This just makes out the Morning Sky!
                                                            F233 (1861)  J204

On the surface we have a simple two-stanza sketch of dawn and dusk.
            The first stanza sketches a simple “evening sky” where the main features are the gathering grayness contrasted with the “slash of Blue!” The “scarlet patches,” far from taking center stage as do the reds and purples of some of her other, grander, sunset poems, here are simply accents on the broader canvas. They may indicate, however, more dramatic colors to come for they are as yet “on the way.”
Evening skies in Christchurch, NZ, look similar
to those Dickinson describes in Amherst
            Dickinson gets a bit more playfully creative with dawn: the “Ruby Trousers” appear quickly; they have been “hurried on” as if Dawn were running a bit late and flung on a bit of colorful clothes. The “Wave of Gold” as the sun rises over the horizon goes well with the “Bank of Day.” All that morning gold is banked for the use of the rest of the day.
            The poem is notable for its movement: Blue is slashed on; Gray sweeps. The scarlet patches are moving across the sky. In the evening, the purple is slipped into place, the trousers put on in a hurry, the Gold is a moving Wave. But in each stanza the movement is stilled into a canvas as if Dickinson had captured all the movement on her IPhone. The first stanza is a composition as if one were looking at a picture or painting of “Evening Sky, Amherst, 1861.” The second stanza, ending with “This just makes out the Morning Sky” can be read as a gallery description of an impressionist painting of dawn.
74th NY Volunteer Infantry 1861
from Don Troiani's Civil War Zouaves
But there is a more foreboding aspect to this poem. Although Dickinson does not directly address the Civil War in her poetry, there are sometimes allusions to it. I suspect this is one. The poem was written the year the Civil War began. Standard-issue uniforms were Blue and Gray: Blue for Union and Gray for Confederate. However, private militias were able to use their own uniforms and consequently there were quite a few different looks on parade and on the battle field.  Among the most exotic and colorful were the Zouave uniforms which came to the U.S., via the French, from North Africa. These uniforms featured baggy pants, braiding, sashes, slashes – the works. Dickinson probably would have seen the Salem Zouaves, and no doubt pictures of the New York Voluntary Infantry. These soldiers wore “Ruby Trousers.” The “scarlet patches” might be various accent pieces (collars, caps, perhaps even blood), and Purple – slipped between would likewise be accessories or accent pieces.
And so we have the Grays sweeping across the landscape, opposed by the “slash” of Blue. The exciting verbs make more sense now. The scarlet patches are surely on the way as muskets begin to fire. Then, after a long night, the ruby Trousers are hurried on, along with the gold braiding, and a bank of soldiers lines the field. Dickinson sent this poem to editor Samuel Bowles, who perhaps had asked her why she didn’t write something about the War. Certainly the tone is more lighthearted than if the poet had meant the piece to be read as a war poem. 

The exact rhymes of “sky” and “Sky” that end each stanza blend meaningfully with the rhymes of “Gray,” “way,” and “Day.” Echoing phrases—“slipped between” and “hurried on”—also contribute to the poetic unity. But perhaps the lines that contribute most are the first and sixth. We have “A slash,” A sweep,” “A Wave,” and “A bank” each by a prepositional phrase. Most of these phrases are of colors. In fact there are quite a few colors in this poem: blue, gray, scarlet, purple, ruby, and gold.
            It’s an intriguing poem – and a gem.


  1. When I read the first three lines that's what I thought, she is finally going to address the war. "A slash of Blue / A sweep of Gray" - and then blood - "Some scarlet patches on the way." And I too thought of the Zouave troops of NY. There must have been some casualties from Amherst by then, and I totally understand a newspaper wanting poems relating to the war. Was her father in Congress in anyway involved with abolitionists?

    1. Off the top of my head I believe her father was not an abolitionist although he was against slavery but as a Whig espoused compromising with the South to avoid drastic conflict. That would mean denying slavery in new territory but not forcing southern slaveholders to give up their slaves.

  2. ...and the thought it would die out. Alas the Whigs died out first.

    And a part historian too. My complements.

  3. I simply enjoy ED’s playful, vivid depiction of dawn. By coincidence, I mentioned the ruby hued morning sky to a friend before opening the page of this little gem!

  4. Rhyme and rhythm of Stanza 1 sound inordinately predictable for ED’s taste and set us up for a similar Stanza 2. Lines 4-6 further lull us down that tick-tock road, then BANG! Line 7 jerks our lethargy, drives us to an exactly slanted Morning Sky.