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26 July 2012

It's like the Light --

It's like the Light—
A fashionless Delight—
It's like the Bee—
A dateless—Melody—

It's like the Woods—
Private—Like the Breeze—
Phraseless—yet it stirs
The proudest Trees—

It's like the Morning—
Best—when it's done—
And the Everlasting Clocks—
                                                            F302 (1862)  297

This riddle poem is quite a puzzle. Dickinson describes nothing so tangible as a snake or a bird, neither anything elemental such as the wind or Spring. We know it is pervasive, eternal, delightful, private—and that it also somehow “stirs / The proudest Trees” and is “Best—when it’s done.”
            Although I’m not certain about what the poem is describing, I can’t help but think about an earlier poem, “The Love a Life can show Below.” In that work, Dickinson describes a “diviner thing” that “invites” and “enchants” us. It provides music’s “hints and sways.” It is the glory of the sun’s rising and setting, the quality that “enamours” in the morning and harrows us with the beauty of sunset in the evening.
            Like that diviner thing, the subject of this poem seems to be some spiritual or divine essence that is manifest in nature. Notice that Dickinson does not use images of babies or houses or anything else that comes from human beings. Instead, this and other poems show her spiritual connection with the natural world (for a playful example, see “Some keep the Sabboth going to church” where God delivers the sermon among the trees with “a Bobolink for a chorister”). Like many mystics (and Transcendentalists such as Emerson whom she was reading), Dickinson senses something very alive in the world. Her poetry often yearns to capture it.
            In “Musicians wrestle everywhere,” Dickinson describes a “silver strife”—a sort of music-like essence that she hears everywhere. She speculates that it might be the music of the spheres or else, perhaps, “service in the place / Where we—with late—celestial face-- / Please God—shall ascertain!” This would be the heavenly version of her orchard Bobolink service.
            In the last stanza, though, Dickinson implies that this diviner thing culminates at noon. Since we can read “noon” as completion or as a peak, we can look at “Morning” as our soul’s life. Its earthly union with that divine essence she seems to be describing is but a prelude to that more perfect, “Everlasting” noon.

Throughout the poem Dickinson borrows Jesus’ formulation as he tried again and again to describe “the kingdom of Heaven” through parable. It’s like this or like that, he said (book of Matthew, chapter 13), just as Dickinson repeats, “It’s like ...” Parables, and their more concise brethren similes, are how writers and teachers—and mystics—help the rest of us to understand the visions and truths they are willing to share.


  1. Could "It" be the early-morning chorus of birdsong...?

    1. Maybe. I think she did find that divine. But I don't think she would liken it to bees, or use the word "Phraseless" -- and the "Everlasting Clocks" imply more than the noon church bell.

  2. Yes, I think you are right. Thanks!

  3. My guess is not the birdsong, but the bird itself. Nice dissection of the poem.

  4. Okay, I've proven I have no fear of being wrong. She is talking about death.

  5. “It” is a poem? Best when it is complete, private in its meanings, timeless and dateless, neither in nor out of fashion, phraseless (inexpressible) in its evocations?

    1. I like this idea of it being about a poem

    2. Or maybe inspiration? It does say phraseless

  6. Well, as long as we are hazarding more speculations, I'll toss out Love. Adult romantic love. Morning would represent the kindling and early longings and sharing; Noon would be that moment when love is full and expressed and understood between the parties.

    That being said, I still rather feel the poem is mystical.

  7. I love the quality riddles sometimes have of describing something ineffable, inexplicable. No other way to do it, since this Quality of spirit IS intangible. You can only talk around it. This one seems along those lines, something like the breeze that stirs the proudest trees. (Stirs emotionally? soulfully?) I like all the zzz sounds in the second stanza coming right after "melody" of bees. As if the bee buzz had entered the poem.

  8. ED tried to convince herself that her na├»ve love affair with Wadsworth, though wonderful, was over; he's moved to California (cf. previous poem, F301). But time’s everlasting clocks chimed noon, urging commitment to poetry, her marriage made in heaven. She tried to convince herself and us her feelings for Wadsworth were over, but she failed. She continued loving Wadsworth until the day she died.