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05 September 2012

Many a phrase has the English language—

Many a phrase has the English language—
I have heard but one—
Low as the laughter of the Cricket,
Loud, as the Thunder's Tongue—

Murmuring, like old Caspian Choirs,
When the Tide's a' lull—
Saying itself in new inflection—
Like a Whippoorwill—

Breaking in bright Orthography
On my simple sleep—
Thundering its Prospective—
Till I stir, and weep—

Not for the Sorrow, done me—
But the push of Joy—
Say it again, Sexton!
Hush—Only to me!
                                                            F333 (1862) 276

Dickinson returns again to a theme she introduced in “Musicians wrestle everywhere” and “The Love a Life can show Below.” In the former, she hears “the silver strife” throughout the day and speculates at what the source of the sound might be. While it suggests the music of the spheres or some heavenly chorus, Dickinson ultimately has no answer. In the latter poem, she speaks of a “diviner thing” that is hinted at in music and makes itself known on summer days and sunsets. It
        …–invites – appalls – endows –
Flits – glimmers – proves – dissolves –
Returns – suggests – convicts – enchants –
Then – flings in Paradise –

            Here she provides more Zen-like similes but delves into this pervasive cosmic message through the lens of language. Unlike English, where one can spin out sentence after sentence, unfolding idea after idea or chit after chat, this message has only one “phrase.” It is “Saying itself” as if in some glorious universal affirmation. Although what she hears can bring her from a deep sleep into tears, her weeping isn’t “for the Sorrow” but rather is “the push of Joy.”
            Almost by definition, mystics, great poets, the holy and the enlightened, see and hear more than the rest of us. The cosmos unfolds for a rare few in the smallest manifestations of the everyday world. The rest of us may have an occasional transcendent moment but mystics come in from the desert, out from under the Bodhi tree, down from the mountain, or out of their private spaces with a wisdom that must be spoken in parable, metaphor, or through myth.
Dickinson often seems attuned to the
music of the cosmos
             In this poem, Dickinson hears the message of the Cosmos—or God—everywhere: from cricket calls to thunder, from the chanting waves of a great sea to the Whippoorwill whose song says its own name and thus becomes the central metaphor of the poem. A nocturnal bird, the whippoorwill breaks through her dreams in “bright Orthography.”  His song continues, “Thundering its Prospective.” There are numerous meanings of “Prospective”: “potential,” “pleasurable anticipation,” “prophecy,” “innocence,” and—in a play on words—“perspective.” Dickinson, I think, means for us to read the word in all these meanings.
            The song of the night bird suggests the seductive mystery of death, but also resurrection. The bird sings through the night and into the dawn of a new day. And just as death is a prelude to resurrection, the poet looks back on life and “the Sorrow, done me,” but then looks beyond it as the song brings her “the push of Joy.”
            In “I can wade Grief,” Dickinson used the same phrase but in a more pedestrian situation. In that poem she notes that while she negotiates the griefs of life quite well,

      the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet—
And I tip—drunken— 

The current poem is an exploration of a deeper sort of joy, one that borders on the ecstatic. Continuing with the whippoorwill metaphor, she asks the bird to “Say it again,” but quietly and “Only to me!” She appropriately refers to the bird as Sexton, for just as the sexton would tend the graveyard where the dead await resurrection, the bird tends the night and ushers in the day.
            But why does she enjoin the bird to sing for her ears only? Her request would make perfect sense in an alternate reading of this poem where she is thinking of words of love from a lover. Yes, don’t tell anyone else you love me! But the lines are more opaque if, as I do, one feels the poem is getting at a cosmic affirmation. This interpretation is not without foundation: Dickinson is often in love with her own often delirious and secret joys. She tastes “a liquor never brewed,” until, tipsy, she is “Leaning against—the Sun!” She enjoys being the solitary human ear at naturalistic holy services in her orchard. She truly seems to revel in a personal mysticism as indicated in the poem “It’s like the Light” where she speaks in riddles about some divine essence manifest in nature.
            But perhaps most telling is the first stanza from the next poem, “Of all the Sounds dispatched abroad,” where the first stanza says

Of all the Sounds despatched abroad
There's not a Charge to me
Like that old measure in the Boughs—
That Phraseless Melody—
The Wind does—working like a Hand--
Whose fingers comb the Sky—
Then quiver down—with tufts of tune—
Permitted Gods—and me—

That “old measure” among the “Sounds dispatched abroad,” she claims, is “Permitted Gods—and me.” Quite exclusive company! Dickinson really does imbibe rarified air. I think she knows it, revels in it, and yes, wouldn’t mind monopolizing it!  


  1. She is ecstatic.

    I have heard but one suggests to me that the "many a phrase" is essentially one in all it's diversity, like The Word made flesh.

    I don't find a sexton but Saxon, which reflects the origins of English. But if sexton hides in there then "only to me" seems right in that only by ourselves can we face our death. The hush reminds me of what a mother might say to a child going to sleep, at the end of a lullaby.

  2. Yes, the sound is like the great Om. But I have to argue for the sexton. Who better to usher in a different way of being than the undertaker/cemetery carekeeper?

  3. Sure, but where is it in the poem?

    1. the murmuring phrase that thunders its perspective, that underlies everything seems like a promise and a revelation of a deeper or other reality. A sexton is a man of the cemetery -- mindful shovelfuls of dirt over the husk of body is a nice metaphor for the transformation of spirit from earthbound to a different realm.

  4. My book of Dickinson's poems is a selection titled Final Harvest, edited by Thomas Johnson and it uses the word Saxon instead of Sexton which, for me, raises the possibility that the English language phrase that dominates is "I love you" and that she hopes to hear it from someone of Saxon ancestry. One of my favorites either way.

  5. My franklin also says “saxon” , which makes sense w the reference to the English language, but with her constant word play and double entendre, you can get 2 meanings for the price of one!

  6. I don't know why I was being so dense when commenters tried to correct my 'sexton' for 'Saxon'. Yes, Saxon it is.

    I'm reading it as the spirit of language and thus the soul of poetry. Just as a mystic might find one Essence in the cosmos, the poet finds one phrase that encompasses all.

    My apologies -- and my thanks -- to commenters who so gently tried to steer me right!

  7. The phrase that thunders its prospective and wakes ED from sleep is “FREE AT LAST!”

    ED weeps, not tears of sorrow for the harm done her by Wadsworth’s “leaving the land”, but tears of joy for escaping her entanglement with him and committing herself to a new marriage, a life dedicated to poetry.

    “Say it again Sam. Say it softly so that only I can hear, FREE AT LAST!"

  8. Looking at the last two lines, "Say it again, Saxon! / Hush - Only to me!," I wonder indeed if the phrase in which Dickinson hears so many things is not the word "Hush," which indeed functions in so many ways and can mean or suggest so much. Among other things, this would explain the earlier line, "Saying itself in new Inflection / Like a Whippowill," which it resembles in being an onomatopeia, and thus "says itself" when spoken.
    As for "Only to me!," might this not be said from the point of view of someone in a dream state on the threshold between sleeping and waking? (cf. "Breaking in Bright Orthography / On my simple sleep")
    Not to run on, but I would also add that there are very interesting resonances with Wordsworth's "It is a beauteous evening..." - not that Dickinson was alluding to it, but I am reminded of, for instance, Wordsworth's lines (he's talking about the sea as he's watching the sunset while walking on the coast of Calais with his young daughter): "Listen, the mighty being is awake / And doth with its eternal motion make / A sound like thunder..."

  9. ED's manuscript clearly reads "Whippowil", not "Whippowill" as Franklin, Johnson, and Susan K published it and not "Whippoorwill" as most lay birders spell it.

    See comment of 11/17/23 on Poem F208, 'A feather from the Whippowill'.