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21 July 2012

This—is the land—the Sunset washes—

This—is the land—the Sunset washes—
These—are the Banks of the Yellow Sea—
Where it rose—or whither it rushes—
These—are the Western Mystery!

Night after Night
Her purple traffic
Strews the landing with Opal Bales—
Merchantmen—poise upon Horizons—
Dip—and vanish like Orioles!
                                                            F297 (1862)  266

This sunset poem seems to build upon the last, F296. In that short poem the clouds are ships that toss on a daffodil-colored sea. In this one the poet is looking at the golden light cast be sunset that seems to wash the land. The horizon bounds the sky and so becomes the “Banks of the Yellow Sea.” Sometimes sunsets are like that—radiant gold.
            Colorful clouds, “purple traffic,” sail across this sea. Some of them pile up along the one horizon line, their purple fading to an opalescence. Some of the smaller clouds move out of sight, and these, the “Merchantmen” Dickinson compares to orioles. These lovely birds to have a dipping flight and, in addition, a lovely sunset gold to go with the Yellow Sea.
            Dickinson wonders where sunset comes from and “whither it rushes.” She has touched on this question in earlier poems. In this one, where she calls sunset’s destination the “Western Mystery,” she alludes to death. The East, where the sun rises, is traditionally associated with new birth and life. The setting sun, in the West, is likened to the sunset of life. Like autumn, the image is of the fading of light and life.
            With this in mind, the busy merchantmen loading the “Opal Bales” can be seen just before they, too, fall below life’s horizon.
            Dickinson achieves some nice effects in this poem. The first stanza with its “This—is,” “These—are,” and “These—are” lulls us as if we are about to be told a story. We are taken straight away into a fantasy landscape: “the land—the Sunset washes.” She ends the stanza with a mystery.
            The second stanza is filled with strong and specific words that contribute to the vividness of the poem: purple, Strews, Opal Bales, Merchantmen, poise, Dip, vanish, Orioles.
            The meter has a rocking quality that mimics the sea.  The first stanza uses a blurred trochaic/anapestic/iambic structure: THESE—are the BANKS of the YELlow SEA. They gently slosh off the tongue. The second stanza interrupts this smoothness. The first two lines would follow the pattern, but Dickinson breaks them up for emphasis. “Night after Night” becomes much stronger when on a line by itself, suggesting the unchanging rhythm of time and sky—and life and death. Night always comes. The other lines echo the metric pattern of the first stanza but with slight interruptions—much like the dipping flight of the Orioles.
            The subtle slant rhymes work well, too. “Washes” is paired with “rushes,” the words suggesting both gentleness and urgency. The sky is washed before the light/life leaves it. “Sea” and “Mystery” perfectly summarize Dickinson’s point: where do we go once we reach the end of our sea? No one knows. My favorite, though, is the rhyme of “Opal Bales” with “Orioles.” I doubt if any other poet has used that!


  1. Thanks for identifying the “purple traffic” as clouds. That had me stumped!

  2. Nice, helpful analysis, Susan. Great poem, this, like all the others. I didn't know of this one before today. (I've often thought I'd read straight through the Franklin or Miller eds., but it'd be a little like eating too much cake.)

  3. This was beautiful and so helpful. I was picturing a wharf in the Orient, but didn’t take it the step further to apply it more generally to life and death!
    Confusingly, my copy of the poem shows the last line as “Dip, and vanish with fairy sails”!

    1. That's a strange ending! Where does your copy come from? Is it from an old book? It's possible one of the first editors, who often tried to regularize her meter and rhyme, thought 'sails' was a better rhyme for 'bales' than 'Orioles'. But I have to say that, bad enough as that would have been, to modify it with 'fairy' is inexcusable.

    2. Yes, it seems very strange -- I don't understand it either (although I liked the imagery before I knew about the Orioles!). It came from the Simply Charlotte Mason compilation by Ruth Smith of Emily Dickinson's poems. I don't see a notation as to the version/edition they used as the source of the poems. Although I'm only on the 5th poem in the booklet, I've already noticed some other differences.

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  5. ED’s imagination takes flight, rises like Sun into sky, rushes west to that mysterious land where Master went. She can’t join him on banks of that yellow sea, so night after night she strews her landing with opal bales of purple poems. Merchantmen, poised on horizons of time, dip them up like Orioles and vanish into waiting centuries.