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21 July 2012

The Doomed—regard the Sunrise

The Doomed—regard the Sunrise
With different Delight—
Because—when next it burns abroad
They doubt to witness it—

The Man—to die—tomorrow—
Harks for the Meadow Bird—
Because its Music stirs the Axe
That clamors for his head—

Joyful—to whom the Sunrise
Precedes Enamored—Day—
Joyful—for whom the Meadow Bird
Has ought but Elegy!
                                                            J294,  Fr298 (1862)  294

After a couple of sunset poems we now have one on sunrise. It begins with a philosophical statement about how those who are about to live their last day experience sunrise—which is a traditional symbol of hope and new beginnings. These “Doomed” souls delight in sunrise as do the “Joyful” of the second stanza, but theirs is a “different Delight.” It may be that “delight” is not the most appropriate word here: the doomed may have a new-found appreciation or even wonder, but it seems more likely they would experience great sadness or regret. But the point is clear enough: The doomed may well have a greater focus on the marvel and beauty that is the sun seemingly rising from behind the world to flood the sky with color and signal the end of night. 
Sunrise wasn't so cheery for the Earl of Somerset

            A doomed man also listens to morning birdsong in a new way. Birds and executioners get an early start. When the prisoner hears the bird he knows his time on earth is soon to end. In a rather savage touch, the lovely song of the “Meadow Bird”  “stirs” the executioner’s axe into bloodlust. No longer an inert tool of justice, the axe “clamors” for the beheading. It wants to sever head from neck.

            Both pairings are ironic: sunrise with doom and bird with executioner’s axe.
            The last stanza seems to welcome death ecstatically. For those whom the bird “has ought but Elegy,” or nothing but a beautiful lament, sunrise is a joyful experience. Sunrise for these lucky souls ushers in the “Enamored” day. “Enamored” means “inflamed with love,” and so the day itself takes on a sense of joyful preparation akin to that of a wedding day. The soul prepares for the ultimate mystery, a journey to discover what lies beyond life’s shores. Dickinson has introduced this idea of journey in numerous poems so far. The poem promises life beyond death and celebrates the last sunrise.


  1. Hey Susan, I read this and thought you might find it interesting. It's a review about the book Emily Dickinson in Love: The Case for Otis Lord, by John Evangelist Walsh.

  2. Thanks, Leticia. I've seen the title but never read a review. Hillary Kelly just eviscerates Walsh! I've rarely seen so much scorn heaped on an author in a major newspaper review. She builds a good case against him, though—and seems to relish the task. Dismissing Walsh's effort as "a silly little book" is the final blow.

  3. What would you say Dickinson's tone is in this poem?

    1. Well, I noted it was philosophical, but if you are looking for an answer to a school question you might want to think about that first. I'm not sure it would suffice! But it's a starting point.

  4. It seems to me that the last stanza could be seen as emphasizing the joy of an ordinary day for those who are not about to die — something we often take for granted.

  5. The word “ought” in this poem’s last line is an etymologist’s nightmare.

    OED definitively states that the noun “ought” means zero and is a variant of the word “nought”. OED also defines the noun “aught” as zero, a variant of the word “naught”. "Naught" and "nought" come from the Old English "nāwiht" and "nōwiht", both of which mean "nothing". They are compounds of no- ("no") and wiht ("thing"). (Wikipedia,,%22Nought%22%20and%20%22naught%22%20versus%20%22ought%22%20and,names%20for%20the%20number%200. )

    HOWEVER . . ., The words "aught" and "ought" (the latter in its noun sense) also come from Old English, "āwiht" and "ōwiht", which are compounds of "a" ("ever") and "wiht" ("thing"). Their meanings are opposites to "naught" and "nought"—they mean "anything" or "all".

    Unfortunately, "aught" and "ought" are also sometimes used as names for 0, in contradiction of their strict meanings. The reason for this is a rebracketing, whereby "a nought" and "a naught" have been misheard as "an ought" and "an aught". (Same Wikipedia URL as above).

    What matters to us is how ED defines “ought” in this poem: does she mean “nothing” or “all”? Commenter Robin Cooper, above, perspicaciously perceives that ED means “all”, and that’s my take too: “Joyful—for whom the Meadow Bird / Has all but Elegy!”, opposite of its explication above.

    NEVER underestimate ED!

    1. Thanks, as usual, Larry -- for the exploration of 'ought' as well as the correction. I do find your and Robin's take to be better than mine -- thanks for the insights and evidence.

  6. My pleasure, for sure!

    All her life joyful sunrise preceded enamored days, inspiring summer song for meadow birds and poetry for ED. Now, since Master moved west, meadow birds sing elegies and sunrise stirs pain, like an axe clamoring for her head.