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09 January 2013

To hear an Oriole sing

To hear an Oriole sing
May be a common thing—
Or only a divine.

It is not of the Bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto Crowd—

The Fashion of the Ear
Attireth that it hear
In Dun, or fair—

So whether it be Rune,
Or whether it be none
Is of within.

The "Tune is in the Tree—"
The Skeptic—showeth me—
"No Sir! In Thee!" 

                                                               F402 (1862)  J526

This is one of Dickinson's wisdom poems. While it is commonly said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the poet applies the same idea to bird song. The Oriole sings the same song whether or not anyone is listening. Those who do hear, however, make their own determination whether or not the song is plain or lovely. The sense of beauty lies within.
Baltimore Oriole: Photo, Joby Joseph
          I like the way she frames the alternatives in the first stanza. To hear the Oriole sing is either a "common thing" or "only a divine." Note the "only." Dickinson is being playfully ironic. Wouldn't we all rather have a divine experience rather than a common one? Well, maybe not, but certainly regarding bird song we'd rather hear the beautiful song of an oriole rather than the thin threads of chipping sparrow.
         It is the ear that determines whether the song is common or divine, "Rune" or "none." The awareness comes from within. Something like this is meant in some of Biblical teachings: don't cast your pearls before swine; "He who has ears, let him hear." Song and melody can be explained in terms of sound waves and vibrations, nerve endings and brain process. The sense of beauty and mystery come from something deeper within the human experience.
         It may well be that Dickinson has poetry in mind as well as bird song. Poems might not have an intrinsic meaning; outside human experience they might be completely meaningless. Critics of her day might look at the elements of poetry: meter, rhyme, etc.; but that is like analyzing bird song. It is a satisfying exercise for the common but misses the divine entirely.


  1. FYI a VERRRRY sweet Baltimore oriole visited my urban (NYC) garden this past Saturday! I named her Emily in honor of you know who and when I posted this fact on FB, I referenced your blog. INFO @

    1. Thanks, Last Leaf. The link you provide doesn't work, though.

  2. Love the inversion of the first paragraph. "May be a divine thing or only a common one" becomes "May be a common thing or only a divine one". It's sarcastic in tone, but also gives emphasis on the meaning of that "only". I've noticed her re-appropriation of that word before. It would be an instructive study just to see when and where she uses the word "only" in her poetry. "Only divine." It's "only" divine, after all! But also, it's ONLY Divine. ONLY.

    The second stanza is so interesting when seen as reflecting Emily's poetry, which was beautifully sung, like the Oriole, even if not to a crowd. (At least not in her lifetime.)

    But it's how we hear the poems that matters. I love that. The poems are are perfectly Oriole/Dickinson regardless.

    1. I just plugged it in the ED lexicon -- and voila! a whole list of 'only' as adjective and also as adverb. Worth a look for sure.

  3. "d scribe" often starts me wondering about something: "It would be an instructive study just to see when and where she uses the word "only" in her poetry". Just for fun I took the bait; ED uses "only" in 104 poems, but only, :), sarcastically or ironically in 14 poems (13%). One of those poems has 4 such onlys and one has 3 for a total of, arguably, 19 sarcastic/ironic onlys:

    1. As if some little Arctic flower
    2. Tis Opposites – entice
    3. To hear an Oriole sing
    4. I think I was enchanted
    5. It always felt to me - a wrong
    6. Bereavement in their death to feel
    7. The Judge is like the Owl-
    8. You've seen Balloons set - Haven't You?
    9. The Spirit is the Conscious Ear.
    10. This Bauble was preferred of Bees-
    11. The Only News I know (4 times)
    12. ‘Twas awkward, but it fitted me (3 times)
    13. So much of Heaven has gone from Earth
    14. Within thy Grave!

    1. Love your commitment, Larry B. I've been enjoying your comments along the way -as they pop up in my in box in any of Susan's posts that I've also commented on. I must be a few dozen poems ahead of you, but you are catching up.

      I think your research shows pretty clearly that "only" is often used sarcastically by ED, which does help. I remember at least one other time when she uses it in a multi-valent way, both sarcastically and earnestly simultaneously, but I can't remember where. I'll look for it.

  4. ED formats ‘To hear an Oriole sing’ F402, 1862, in five tercets, her second such quintet poem, hard on the heels of ‘Like Flowers, that heard the news of Dews’, F361, 1862.

    Her earliest totally tercet poem (F28, “about late summer 1858”), a lovely sacrilege,

    “In the name of the Bee –
    And of the Butterfly –
    And of the Breeze – Amen!”,

    pokes fun at the short Christian prayer,

    “In the name of the Father,
    and of the Son,
    and of the Holy Spirit – Amen”,

    which, in turn, derives from Matthew 28:19,

    “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”.

  5. Love that “So whether it be Rune, The "Tune is in the Tree”.

    ED lulls us with her biblical “attireth”, “showeth” and, a twinkle in her eye, jolts us to her semi-unbiblical close:

    "No Sir! In Thee!"

  6. Rune: In Finland, a short poem or song on an epic or legendary subject; one of the songs which together constitute the Kalevala, an epic poem compiled in the nineteenth century. (OED)

    The Finnish word runo, meaning 'poem', is an early borrowing from Proto-Germanic.