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02 October 2012

When we stand on the tops of Things—

 When we stand on the tops of Things—
And like the Trees, look down—
The smoke all cleared away from it—
And mirrors on the scene—

Just laying light—no soul will wink
Except it have the flaw—
The Sound ones, like the Hills—shall stand—
No lightning, scares away—

The Perfect, nowhere be afraid—
They bear their dauntless Heads,
Where others, dare not go at Noon,
Protected by their deeds—

The Stars dare shine occasionally
Upon a spotted World—
And Suns, go surer, for their Proof,
As if an axle, held –
                                                            F343 (1862)  242

It’s a bit unnerving  to imagine the dead saints perched up in heaven looking down at us on earth with the aid of lights and mirrors that reveal our flaws. Those of us who are spotted will seem to “wink” rather than glow with a bright pure light. Those goody-goody “Perfect” folks will trot about in the full light of noon holding their “dauntless Heads” up high. They shine true and pure—no winking for them!
        But thank goodness for those blessed folk because otherwise we might just lose the sun. Only the stars would come around to “occasionally” illuminate our “spotted World.” But since those “Sound ones” can withstand the scrutiny of even the brightest light, the “Suns” (not sure what to make of this plural) can make their rounds with more surety. The “Proof,” or soundness, of the Perfect is as good as an axle to hold the Sun in place. Otherwise—who knows?—it might fly away into the dark spaces of the cosmos.
Not enough "Perfect" in Sodom, so it was destroyed.
Painting by John Martin, 1852
        Dickinson’s use of the sun here is interesting. She has used the sun before as a symbol of intellectual and spiritual illumination, as a personification for God or ideal and worshipful male being, and simply as the epitome of day and light. But in this poem the sun has a rather fragile quality. Far from being a life giver/life sustainer, it doesn’t do well if its world is spotted with imperfect souls. There is an interaction and even interdependency implied between the creator and the created. The risen saints, however, don’t seem constrained. They now can see the world clearly, spots and all. I’m reminded of “I taste a liquor never brewed,” where the saints run to the windows to “see the little Tippler / Leaning against the – Sun!” They haven’t come to judge, only to wonder.
        And that may be Dickinson’s message here. The spotted world is an interesting one, but it takes the saints to keep us all tethered on our course. Maybe she was thinking of the angels who visited Abraham and agreed that if even ten righteous people were found in Sodom and Gomorrah God would not destroy it. Alas, not enough righteous people were found and the wicked cities went up in fire and brimstone.


  1. Comment: It's not much of a stretch to imagine ED understanding that every star is a sun, hence that plural. The last stanza of "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers: imagines many other "firmaments" rowing by.

    Is there a typo in your copy of the poem, however, l.8? Franklin's ED has the noun as "lightning," which makes more sense. (Hate to offer a correction on a project I so admire, but it's all about scholarly community, isn't it? Or is that l.8 noun in dispute and I unaware of it?

    1. Thank you for catching the typo -- I've corrected it. And I think you are right about ED's use of "suns".

  2. Your analysis brings me to this conclusion: why would we need heaven if life were already heaven on earth?

  3. It seems that the poem is a Bible story.

  4. Dollar to a donut, Line 10, second word, reflects ED’s notoriously and often intentionally bad spelling. Corrected, the stanza reads:

    The Perfect, nowhere be afraid—
    They bare their dauntless Heads,
    Where others, dare not go at Noon,
    Protected by their deeds—

  5. In previous poems, ED flatly rejected the Christian notion of a loving God. That doesn’t mean she believed God is dead, though she later suggested that could happen (‘This is a Blossom of the Brain’, F1112, Stanza 4):

    “When [poetry] is lost, that Day shall be
    The Funeral of God”,

    Rather, Lines 11-12,

    “And Suns, go surer, for their Proof,
    As if an axle, held—”,

    suggest she accepted a theological construct called “The Watchmaker Creator”: An intelligent God exists, one who created the universe like a perfect watch and then withdrew from further interference in the Universe, including human existence (

  6. An interpretation:

    When we stand on top of things—
    And, like trees, look down—
    Abandon all Christian myths —
    And focus sunlight on the Earth—

    With mirrors—no soul will blink
    Unless it’s flawed with belief
    The flawless souls, like the hills—shall stand—
    Fearless of flashing lightning—

    These infidels no longer fear death,
    They bare their dauntless heads to Sun,
    Which believers dare not do at noon,
    Protected by their deeds, not faith—

    By night stars shine occasionally
    On a world of fearful believers—
    By day the Sun spins surer, proof that God
    Holds its axle in his hand.

  7. "The Stars dare shine occasionally
    Upon a spotted World—
    And Suns, go surer, for their Proof,
    As if an axle, held –"

    Here is ED's "Proof" of the existence of "God", AKA a "Watchmaker God", the precision spin of Earth, Moon, Sun, and other celestial spheres. No love is needed to explain our existence, just a precision watchmaker. However, by the end of her life, she told her Norcross cousins:

    “I believe we shall in some manner be cherished by our Maker - that the One who gave us this remarkable earth has the power still farther to surprise that which He has caused. Beyond that all is silence. . . .” (L785, 1882).

    Whether ED really believes in a beneficent "our Maker" is another thing.