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16 August 2012

Delight is as the flight—

Delight is as the flight—
Or in the Ratio of it,
As the Schools would say—
The Rainbow's way—
A Skein
Flung colored, after Rain,
Would suit as bright,
Except that flight
Were Aliment—

"If it would last"
I asked the East,
When that Bent Stripe
Struck up my childish
And I, for glee,
Took Rainbows, as the common way,
And empty Skies
The Eccentricity—

And so with Lives—
And so with Butterflies—
Seen magic—through the fright
That they will cheat the sight—
And Dower latitudes far on—
Some sudden morn—
Our portion—in the fashion—
Done –
                                                           F317 (1862)  257

To properly enjoy the poem it helps to flesh it out a bit. Dickinson likes leaving out the occasional word, and her imagery skips and alights here and there like the butterflies she includes. She begins by claiming that our delight in life is in the flight of it. By ‘flight’ she means the arc and duration. The “Ratio of it” is the height over the curve, duration over distance: how far or high did you go in life before your time was over?
            But flight seems to have additional meaning, for if the ratio were all, then rainbows would “suit” our desire for delight. But then Dickinson qualifies that statement by writing “Except that flight / Were Aliment.” Since “Aliment” is nourishment, the poet seems to be saying that each of us needs flight—we can’t just admire the rainbow.             Dickinson’s description of a rainbow as “A Skein / Flung colored, after Rain” is another of her homely, feminine images. The housewife gathers up some brightly-colored yarn and flings it into the sky to make the rainbow. The image is picked up again in the next poem where a housewife sweeps up the sky with many-colored brooms, dropping a “Purple Ravelling” into a pond.
            In this poem she concentrates on the ephemeral nature of life and beauty. As a child she asked the sunrise (“the East”—source of wisdom) if the “Bent Stripe” of rainbow would last. She didn’t yet know that they weren’t the “common way.” A sky without a rainbow seemed an “Eccentricity.” But over time she learned that rainbows, lives, and butterflies all come and go, their “magic” heightened by the knowledge (or “fright”) that they will move on to farther latitudes one day. To “Dower” these latitudes is to enrich them. It’s nice to think that when “Our portion” on earth is done that we will grace the next stage.

The poem skips in its own ephemeral manner with short lines and skipping rhymes. “Flight” maintains its centrality with rhymed words throughout the first and third stanzas: flight, bright, flight, fright, sight. Dickinson adopts an intimate and conversational tone, beginning with a philosophical musing (Delight is in the ephemerality of beauty and life and the ratio of duration to existence), then reminisces about rainbows she saw as a child, and then concludes as if wrapping up a story to a child, saying that we are like rainbows and butterflies, too: magic while here but then suddenly gone to far-off latitudes.


  1. I happen to be reading a poem a day of Dickenson, while also doing the same with Yeats, and what a contrast in styles! It does take 2nd, 3rd, and more readings with Emily for meaning, than Yeats, but each style has its charm. I do wonder why style wise she does leave words out, or put beginning phrases in a sentence, last. Poetic license I guess, but in this poem I'm confused with the first two lines of the last stanza: And so with Lives- And so with Butterflies- ?? And what is with Butterflies? I'm stumped.

  2. ‘Delight is as the flight’ (F317) can be read as a philosophical rumination about our lives, as measured by our ratio of happiness/sadness or pleasure/pain and our learning curve about that ratio as we pass from childhood to maturity. As a young girl ED “Took Rainbows, as the common way, / And empty Skies / The Eccentricity”. Those three lines ring so true, terse, and lovely, that reading them I feel Divinity’s presence.

    However, I also think ED is reminiscing about her unforgettable early twenty-something love affair with Susan, before Austin became Sue’s ticket to a dependable marriage and father for her children. “East” is ED’s early moniker for Sue, and she worried about losing her Cleopatra. As she feared, Sue did dower latitudes far on, suddenly announcing her engagement to Austin after a clandestine rendezvous with him at Boston’s Revere Hotel on March 23, 1853 (Habegger 1998). ED’s portion of Sue’s romantic love suddenly was done, finished, probably on the morn following their return to Amherst.