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18 August 2012

Of Bronze—and Blaze—

Of Bronze—and Blaze—
The North—Tonight—
So adequate—it forms—
So preconcerted with itself—
So distant—to alarms—
And Unconcern so sovereign
To Universe, or me—
Infects my simple spirit
With Taints of Majesty—
Till I take vaster attitudes—
And strut upon my stem—
Disdaining Men, and Oxygen,
For Arrogance of them—

My Splendors, are Menagerie—
But their Competeless Show
Will entertain the Centuries
When I, am long ago,
An Island in dishonored Grass—
Whom none but Daisies, know.

                                                            F319 (1862)  290

It took  me a few readings, but I eventually realized that Dickinson is describing the northern lights, or aurora borealis. After leafing through some reference books I found that other readers agreed with me. One said that the puzzle was spoiled in early editions of Dickinson’s poetry because some clever editor, clearly not trusting his readers, titled it “Aurora.” But the clues to the puzzle come early in the poem: “Bronze—and Blaze” indicate power, color, and light. The blaze comes from the north at night, it is distant and majestical, and will continue the “Competeless Show” for centuries. Dickinson also qualifies the occurrence by the word “Tonight”: the blazing event doesn’t happen every night, like sunset or the rise of Polaris, despite the fact that it will continue to entertain for centuries.
            The aurora’s power “Infects” her, and the word is an interesting choice, intensified by the “Taints of Majesty” she is infected with. It’s as if watching the light show introduced a virus. She becomes arrogant, strutting about on her “stem” like a foolish flower, “Disdaining Men” and even the common air that mortals breathe.
            This first, long, stanza is about the aurora as a complete cosmic entity. It is distant, causes no alarms, and in its remote self sufficiency is completely unconcerned with either the universe or the awe-struck poet. This bridging, “To Universe, or me,” is very Dickinsonian in the link between the cosmos and the human consciousness (something Walt Whitman was exploring at the same time). Time and again we see in her poetry an aesthetic affiliation with the natural world—not only in contemplation and enjoyment, but also in a psychic or spiritual resonance.
            It is the absolute independence of the northern lights that seeps into Dickinson’s poetic consciousness causing her, at least temporarily, to become infected with the notion that she could also be grandly independent. Or, perhaps, that her poems might be entire of themselves, distant, complete, and “preconcerted”—that is, somehow organically unified before coming into final or written form.

Aurora captured by Space Shuttle (rear fin in foreground)
The second stanza contrasts the poet’s “Menagerie” of poems, which she ironically calls her “Splendors,” to the aurora’s “Show” that, in a class of their own with no competition, will “entertain” people for hundreds of years, long after the poet is buried, known only to the daisies in the field.  Regarding that verb “entertain,” Helen Vendler writes in Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries that Dickinson “does not have the Auroras ‘impress’ the Centuries—nor does she introduce a hyperbolic verb such as ‘stun,’ ‘amaze,’ or ‘astound’; no, the purpose of the Auroras is to ‘entertain.’ It is as though the Creator and the Poet were both artists, and God had decided to ‘entertain’ the Centuries with his ‘Show’ in the heavens, while the poet, in a lesser way, entertains a briefer span of years with her circus ‘Menagerie’” (p. 123).
            When Dickinson writes that after burial her body will be “An Island in dishonored Grass,” she returns to the idea of infection and taint. Her corpse dishonors the field. Yet she is known by the daisies, and one supposes that they are nourished by her decomposing flesh. Perhaps these daisies, too, will one day strut in falsely-appropriated majesty beneath the northern lights.


  1. The North was the clue to me that this wasn't an ordinary sunset. Once she got to the line about strutting upon her "stem" with arrogance, I knew she was transitioning to her being the poet, "adequate-erect-with power to choose and to reject!"

  2. Hmmm, your and Vendler's take on this poem is to see take that "their" of the second stanza and apply it to the auroras. In Wineapple's White Heat she uses this second stanza as a way to imply that Dickinson had a notion of her own poems entertaining the centuries. If that was true, this would be a remarkable prediction.

    I think the "but" in the second stanza could grammatically contrast her splendors (assuming poems, but could be any wonders of self) with the Aurora. However, that "but" could also grammatically contrast the entertaining splendors of her poems with the body in the grave.

    The self-deprecation in the first stanza seems to bolster your take on "their" as referring to the auroras, which would make splendors ironic. But I'm not so sure they are meant that way. The slipperiness here seems purposive. I think she may well be seeing her own work, mystically, as entertaining the centuries.

    It's wild, if so.

    1. I believe that I was reading the second stanza as referring to her and her poems. My commentary supports that reading. Her "I" was introduced in stanza 1 and it is logical that stanza 2's "I" continues to refer to herself.
      Yes, it is really really wild!! And it is nice that she has faith in future readers to get it.

    2. Well, now I see that I was sharing Vendler's take in the explication, in opposition to my earlier reply tonight. Coming back back to the poem I'm struck by the ambiguity and power of the 'their' in stanza one that you initially referred to. I suspect that ambiguity and dual reading was intentional...

  3. By the way, the Wineapple mention is kind of a cheat, because she doesn't quote the first stanza. The second stanza without the first is misleading, especially if you take the "their" to qualify the auroras. Wineapple writes, "For she spoke of her writing with increasing if comically humble confidence, hesitancy growing into assertion" and then quotes the second stanza.

  4. You wrote “The second stanza contrasts the poet’s “Menagerie” of poems, which she ironically calls her “Splendors,” to the aurora’s “Show” that, in a class of their own with no competition”. I assumed from this you were saying that ED’s poems, contrasted to the Auroras, can’t compete, and are ironically non-splendid in comparison. It seems that Vendler takes this view at any rate. If so, then the entertaining for centuries would refer to the Auroras. Both the “their” and the “but” could have alternative readings, no? I do want to believe that Emily was seeing her own postmortem value here, but it is hard to say!

  5. Sorry, responding from phone instead of computer makes me “anonymous” instead of D Scribe.