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19 July 2012

Where Ships of Purple—gently toss --

Where Ships of Purple—gently toss --
On Seas of Daffodil—
Fantastic Sailors—mingle—
And then—the Wharf is still!
                                                            F296 (1862)  265

No one does sunsets better than Dickinson. I wonder if Amherst sunsets are still so colorful. Where I’ve lived sunsets are primarily red, pink, and gold, but the ones she describes often have purple. This one does, too. Here she sees great ships, large purple clouds, gently tossing in their moorings. The sea beneath them is tinted golden, "Daffodil," from the setting sun. The mingling and fantastic sailors are no doubt smaller clouds that move among the larger ship-like ones, their shapes constantly changing. When the sun sets the sky turns dark and "the Wharf is still!"
          
            The poem contains just the single image, the sky mirroring a harbor but in gorgeous sunset colors. 

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for the enlightening commentary on this little gem of a poem about the visual splendour of the sky at sunset.

    It's wonderful reading the poem aloud as one is aware of the effect of the iambic tetrameter, especially in the first line which mirrors the oscillation of a moored ship gently rocking on calm waters.

    The poem's atmosphere of solace and contentment is palpably evoked by the adverb 'gently' in line 1, and also phonetically by repetition of the lilting and lulling 's', 'p', 'l', 't' and 'd' sounds in the first two lines.

    The fact that Dickinson has again employed the metaphor of the sea to represent the sky is very apt, as ships float in the sea just as weightless clouds do in the sky. Dickinson's use of the plural in her metaphors ('Ships' and 'Seas') further enhances the abundance and immensity of the sky.

    The contrast between the richness of the purple clouds and the golden yellow of the sky, as suggested by the noun 'Daffodil', is particularly striking. As an early, vibrant spring flower, the word 'Daffodil' adds to the poem's air of contentment. Yet the reference to a flower, an overt symbol of transience, also suggests the fleeting nature of this particular resplendent sunset that is soon to fade. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the word 'Daffodil' rhymes with the final exclaimation 'Still!', suggesting the inevitable fading of the sunset and, by subtle implication, the transience of life that ultimately becomes muted and inert. (This connection of man and nature is heightened by the fact that Dickinson has described the fading clouds in human terms, referring to them as 'Sailors'.)

    It certainly is amazing what Dickinson can do with her 'palette' of words which hold such powers of suggestion.

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    1. Thank you -- All great points -- I particularly like your noticing the iambic tetrameter which really does set the poem rocking. And I hadn't noticed, or if I did I didn't discuss the 'Wharf' at the end. It surely does double duty for both the ships and sailers that come to rest as well as for all of us who must go into that good night ourselves someday.

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  2. Yes, I agree that the image of the 'Wharf' that becomes still and inert certainly carries a dual implication, suggesting both the sun and clouds disappearing beyond the horizon, and the obliteration of life in general. The stillness and mutedness of the final line is especially evocative, slightly poignant even, due to its sharp contrast with the former bustling interaction of the harbour, as described by the verb 'mingle'. All the verve and vitality of life has been erased by the onset of night, a sentiment heightened by the monosyllabic words of the final line which quell the poem's lulling and lilting rhythm, and lay it to rest.

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  3. Romantic era sunsets WERE particularly vivid, due to volcanic ash from several cataclysmic eruptions worldwide. The Hudson River School artists and their sunsets might not have been hyperbole, after all, nor were ED purple sunsets.

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    1. Great point. I hadn't thought of it ever before! Even with ED's various references to volcanic eruptions.

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