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26 August 2012

How the old Mountains drip with Sunset

 How the old Mountains drip with Sunset
How the Hemlocks burn—
How the Dun Brake is draped in Cinder
By the Wizard Sun—

How the old Steeples hand the Scarlet
Till the Ball is full—
Have I the lip of the Flamingo
That I dare to tell?

Then, how the Fire ebbs like Billows—
Touching all the Grass
With a departing—Sapphire—feature—
As a Duchess passed—

How a small Dusk crawls on the Village
Till the Houses blot
And the odd Flambeau, no men carry
Glimmer on the Street—

How it is Night—in Nest and Kennel—
And where was the Wood—
Just a Dome of Abyss is Bowing
Into Solitude—

These are the Visions flitted Guido—
Titian—never told—
Domenichino dropped his pencil—
Paralyzed, with Gold—
                                                            327 (1862)  291

Dickinson gives a tour de force series of sunset imagery, each one worthy of a small poem itself. Her use of “How the…” provides a forward momentum for the images, which otherwise might take longer to set up. It’s a very economical technique that also introduces a note of wonder: “Wow—how did Sunset do that??”
            She begins with the sun lighting up the wooded hills. Sunset colors seem to drip down the mountain’s side as the sun lowers. The hemlocks are golden while the shadows drape the “Dun Brake” fern in deep gray. Next, Dickinson turns her attention to town where the soaring church steeples are tinted red. In her imagination these steeples are conveying color to the sun, filling it with red until “the Ball is full” of the scarlet we sometimes see on the face of the sun as it sets.
            Dickinson is just getting warmed up, for she thinks she might need the long beak of the Flamingo to tell all that she sees. Continuing her progression from the far to the near, she now looks at the grassy lawns of town. There, she watches as the sunset gradually fades and the shadows darken the grass as if a duchess in a sapphire gown  walked by.
            As it darkens, “Dusk crawls on the Village” as if some living thing. The houses begin to become indistinguishable. Overhead, Venus and early stars can be seen twinkling. They “Glimmer on the Street” like a lit torch.
            At last night has arrived and here Dickinson takes us to the most intimate level: “Nest and Kennel” where birds and dogs are tucking themselves in for night. She looks back once more at the wooded hill and sees only the “Dome of Abyss” where there was just moments ago a splendid light show.
Titian used both brilliant gold and
sunset scarlet in this famous painting
            Dickinson sees the Dome of Abyss” Bowing / Into Solitude,” and this is a very cold and distant image, particularly as all the previous imagery is full of friendly transactions: the “Wizard Sun” drapes the ferns and paints the trees. The steeples help color the sun. A duchess lends her sapphire gown to the grass, and stars bring a bit of light to the street. But then the world is dark. To Dickinson it’s an unmasking. Where there was a kindly wizard sun there is now an abyss. Where everything pitched in together to create a moment of beauty there is now only dark solitude.
            In the final stanza, Dickinson refers to Renaissance and Baroque painters famous for their use of color. Despite their great technical and artistic skills, none of them would be able to capture the setting of the sun—they would be “Paralyzed, with Gold.” It’s a sly ending, both for the double meaning of “Gold” (the painters had to depend on wealthy patrons to survive), but because the whole poem implies that where painters might fail, a poet can succeed.


  1. And remove l from "gold" and you have god.

    1. Thanks -- I love that angle. It fits.

    2. And remove l from "Paralyzed" and you have "parayzed"!

    3. This is the true Dickinson's genius, her superb dominance of language.

  2. This was a stunning depiction of this poem, and a highly interesting read! Thank you so much for posting this!

  3. Thanks, Susan! I couldn't sleep and got out a Dickenson collection I'm reading through for the first stuck on "the brake of dun" (sic) then found your blog. She's timeless and somehow I don't believe she found solitude to be so onerous. Hope you're hanging in there in 2021 (time flipped the last two digits since your original post!).

  4. Stunning descriptions indeed. Thanks Susan.

    ED may be remembering paintings she saw in Boston or Washington museums. Books illustrated in color were rare and expensive, e.g., Audubon’s Birds of America. Dickinson library lists suggest their absence at the two houses.