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22 August 2012

Good Night—Which put the Candle out?

Good Night—Which put the Candle out?
A jealous Zephyr—not a doubt—
Ah, friend, You little knew
How long at that celestial wick
The Angels—labored diligent—
Extinguished—now—for You!

It might have been the Light House Spark—
Some Sailor—rowing in the Dark—
Had importuned to see—
It might have been the waning Lamp
That lit the Drummer— from the Camp—
To purer Reveille—
                                                            F322 (1862)  259

Dickinson immediately signals that she has bigger, more mysterious things in mind than who blew out the candle by using the pronoun “Which” rather than “Who.” The “Candle” may on the simplest level be a candle that lit someone’s way from drawing room to bed, for in Dickinson’s day there were no electric lights, but the poem takes us immediately to the stars. It was not some careless person who accidentally blew out a household candle.
            Instead, the poet addresses the Zephyr, the Greek god of the west wind  standing here for all mild winds. It blew out a star, the “celestial wick” that angels “labored” over with great diligence. I picture a night with a few stars shining; but then some wind pushes a cloud over a star and its brightness immediately vanishes. The Zephyr, the poet supposes, was “jealous” over that twinkling beam in the heavens.
In this detail from Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Zephyr blows
the newly-fledged goddess to shore on a half shell.
            She continues, chastising the Zephyr: that little star might have been the one thing guiding a sailor lost at sea to some safe harbour—as if it were a lighthouse beaming light to guide ships around rocky shores. Or, perhaps the star was the last light a dying drummer from the war (the Civil War was raging at this time) saw as he slipped from this world into the next where the trumpets would play a “purer Reveille.”
            The spondee “Ah, friend,” introduces a not of wistfull sadness as the poet contemplates the dark spot in the sky that once twinkled with light. The sadness continues with images of death as the sailor now has no way to navigate and the Drummer has lost his way to heaven. The message is a heavy one: no matter how diligently the angels work on our behalf, the casual act of a jealous Zephyr, standing here for all gentle winds, can wipe out there efforts in one small puff. 


  1. Do you think it is possible to extrapolate even further: since angels are holy, what is influencing the zephyrs? Does this theme appear anywhere else in her poems?

  2. I thought this was about a sunset at first.

  3. Sometimes a poem, like a star to a sailor, may guide our lives. This poem comes back to me more often, as a guide, than any other I have read thus far. It reminds me that any jealous thought, which means any attachment, puts out the light in us, a light that is as small as a candle flame and as big as a star. The angels (the divine, the generations, etc) have labored so hard to light this flame, and then we so brazenly blow it out with our jealousy! And what is lost? Some other, who may have been saved by our light. Today I was thinking about that "purer reveille". It's hard to imagine a better way of saying "wake up" to us. This is the kind of poem that has the power to change a life. It IS the star it urges you to be.

    1. I sent this poem to a friend. He texted back saying he didn't understand the poem but did a google search. Then he sent me the above "comment" as the translation online that most helped him understand the poem, not knowing the words were mine. Wild.

    2. I really love both your 4/3 comment (must have missed it at the time) and how it traveled back to you.

  4. A goodbye guilt trip for Reverend Charles Wadsworth, formerly of Philadelphia, now San Francisco.

    Charles, I hope you sleep well tonight – Which of us snuffed the candle of our love? Some jealous breeze, no doubt you’ll say. My friend, little did you know the angels labored seven years to ignite that flame of love, extinguished now by your “leaving the land”!

    The light of that love might have inspired poems to guide some soul lost at sea, begging for direction to a safe harbor. The light of that love might have offered dimming inspiration for a waning Amherst poet to write greater poetry.

  5. Brilliant insight!