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20 June 2012

I shall keep singing!

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes –
Each – with a Robin's expectation –
I – with my Redbreast –
And my Rhymes –

Late – when I take my place in summer –
But – I shall bring a fuller tune –
Vespers – are sweeter than Matins – Signor –
Morning – only the seed of Noon –
                                                            F270 (1861)  250

The poet claims her poems will make a “fuller tune” compared to other poet “Birds” who pass her on their way to sunnier locations with their chapbooks of verse and their  “Robin’s expectation” of spring. Their poems may be heard first and gain some attention. But the poet is also a robin – she has a “Redbreast” too! And she has her “Rhymes.” (And sure enough, “Rhymes” rhymes perfectly with “Climes.”)  The poet probably won’t arrive in Poetville until summer, rather than spring, but that is okay for her poems are deeper and more complex than the frothy stuff other poets were dishing up at that time – and she knows it.
            Dickinson then moves into images of morning, noon, and evening. Vespers and Matins are prayer services of Catholic and some Protestant churches that typically feature psalms and other religious poems set to music. Vespers is the evening service and Dickinson finds them “sweeter” than the morning Matins service. There is fullness at the end of the day, a sense of mature completion, and Dickinson believes her poetry will be the Vespers to the less mature Matins of others. Mornings, she continues, are "only"  the "seed" – the hope and potentiality – of noon.
            There is a second sense to the second stanza. She seems to be implying that even her own poetry is getting better as her "day" progresses. Her “Noon”– always a symbol to her of fullness – is the ripening and unfolding of her morning – the fruition of her poetic promise.
Sample of Dickinson's poetry as
it appeared in her fascicles
            The poem is address to a “Signor” – a rather droll way of saying “Sir” – as if this person had wondered when Dickinson was ever going to publish or to bloom as a poet. Not now, she is saying. What you’ve seen of my poetry so far is just “morning”: it is just the seed of what is to come.

The comment raises an interesting question. Dickinson submitted some poems for publication, was not strongly encouraged, and then seemed to disparage the idea of publication, calling it “the auction of the mind.” Yet she kept page after page of poems, even scraps of paper with poems scribbled on them. Many of these poems, about 800!, she fastened together in little booklets that scholars sometimes refer to as ‘fascicles.’ These fascicles were surely meant to be read. Dickinson was writing for the future. I suspect this allowed her to develop that “fuller tune.” Could she be more honest, bare her soul more deeply than had she been writing for publication at the time? I think so, and I’m glad she had the self confidence and patience to keep writing and to save her work. 


  1. I'm glad too! I wonder if she is also red-breasted from being stabbed in the heart...

  2. Q1. Who’s the unexpected “Signor” appearing suddenly at poem’s end? My vote goes to Rev. Wadsworth. Franklin’s estimated date of composition is late 1861, which precedes ED’s first letter to Higginson. Wadsworth pastored in Philadelphia until April 1862. The “droll” tone of “Signor” matches the opening tone of Master Letter 3, which Franklin dates early 1862: “Oh, did I offend it- [Did'nt it want me to tell it the truth] Daisy - Daisy-offend it-who bends her smaller life to his . . .”

    Q2. What does ED mean in Line 5 when she says “I – with my Redbreast –”? For one thing, she’s just mentioned “Robin’s expectation”, and ‘Robin Redbreast’ is a common nickname of the bird. However, here she says “my Redbreast”. I think she means literally.

    Just three poems ago, F267, she told us she has freckles on her bosom. We know ED had auburn (red) hair and can infer a fair complexion. In F131, ‘Tho’ my destiny be Fustian’, she told us “I would far prefer, / still, my little sunburnt bosom / To her Rosier”. For a Victorian woman, she seems mighty frank about her “Redbreast”.

    1. Thank you for the references in ED's poems about the 'sunburnt bosom'!

    2. Astonishing two words coming from ED. Can you imagine a crafty paparazzi sneaking a photo of ED sunbathing topless in her garden?

  3. Sorry, competition is great for improving products, but this boasting self-comparison of ED with other, lesser poets borders on insecurity. If you know you’re a poet of the ages, you don’t need to crow about it.