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19 November 2012

It will be Summer—eventually

It will be Summer—eventually.
Ladies—with parasols—
Sauntering Gentlemen—with Canes—
And little Girls—with Dolls—

Will tint the pallid landscape—
As 'twere a bright Bouquet—
Thro' drifted deep, in Parian—
The Village lies—today—

The Lilacs—bending many a year—
Will sway with purple load—
The Bees—will not despise the tune—
Their Forefathers—have hummed—

The Wild Rose—redden in the Bog—
The Aster—on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion—set—
And Covenant Gentians—frill—

Till Summer folds her miracle—
As Women—do—their Gown—
Or Priests—adjust the Symbols—
When Sacrament—is done –
                                                                                          F374 (1862)  342

The poem starts out sweetly: Don’t be discouraged, summer will indeed come on schedule, despite the cold, snow-covered landscape ("Parian" refers to a marble famed for its fine-grained white purity). We see a summer scene sketched out for us: families out for a stroll in their colorful dress, lilacs heavy with purple flowers, bees humming along as they have every summer, and vibrant flowers bringing the hills to life.
Parian marble blocks, Paros Island
Photo: Katerina Lorenzatos Makris

                  The last stanza presents two metaphors for summer. The first is sweet and lovely: Summer can fold and unfold her colors and pretty scenes just as ladies do their gowns. The second is pure Dickinson—a twist with a zing that reverberates on a much deeper level than what has gone before. Following hard on the delicate heels of the careful housewife is the Priest who puts up the communion sets and robes when the service is over.
                  Questions linger, as no doubt Dickinson intended they should. Is the Priest merely acting as the prudent housewife who packs away the winter gowns in spring to protect them? After all, the communion tray and glasses, extra wafers and wine shouldn’t just be left out on the altar. Or is Dickinson suggesting that life itself is like a season and religious symbols are adjusted to represent that? Birth is a spring, of course; old age and death, winter. The sacraments of baptism, marriage, and final communion reflect these seasons.
I also can read in this ambiguous ending the slight suggestion that the symbols are like small toys. The phrase “adjust the Symbols” seems like a small game, a boy putting his toy soldiers away after a mock battle. Life and the seasons sweep on carrying us with them and never revealing themselves. Good housewives adopt practices to match (I’m speaking from the 1800s, not being sexist). Good priests—and church liturgies, sacraments, and rituals should do the same.
As Dickinson said in the previous poem, “… through a Riddle, at the last— / Sagacity, must go—”.  In the meantime, we hunker down in winter and welcome spring.


  1. Franklin dates ‘It will be Summer’ “about 1862” but also says ED sent Bowles a few lines “about early 1862”. The poem’s first 18 lines feel quotidian, mere warm-ups for Lines 19-20 where she posits priests might “adjust the symbols / when sacrament is done”. For ED to suggest "adjusting religious symbols" should be heresy for good Christians, but it happened; south of the Mason-Dixon Line ministers justified slavery with the Biblical “Curse of Ham” (Wikipedia):

    “The explanation that black Africans, as the "sons of Ham", were cursed, possibly "blackened" by their sins, was sporadically advanced during the Middle Ages, but its acceptance became increasingly common during the slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The justification of slavery itself through the sins of Ham was well suited to the ideological interests of the elite; with the emergence of the slave trade, its racialized version justified the exploitation of African labor.”

    Even north of the Mason-Dixon Line, fear of alienating deep pockets in their congregations led ministers to tiptoe carefully around the Curse of Ham, especially at large conservative churches like Arch Street Presbyterian in Philadelphia, home base for Charles Wadsworth, 1850-1862. It wouldn’t surprise if a religious skeptic like ED raised this topic in correspondence and enclosed ‘It will be Summer’ as a teaser.

  2. Because I can't quite get enough of ED, I own a shelf's-worth of books about her life and work. But the Prowling Bee remains my favorite resource. Seriously! So, at the risk of seeming a nitpicky ingrate, in the 2nd stanza, 3rd line, the word "thro" should be "tho." Because I trust the Prowling Bee, I checked this fact against the ED archive.