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27 June 2013

A Solemn thing within the Soul

A Solemn thing within the Soul
To feel itself get ripe —
And golden hang — while farther up —
The Maker's Ladders stop —
And in the Orchard far below —
You hear a Being — drop —

A Wonderful — to feel the Sun
Still toiling at the Cheek
You thought was finished —
Cool of eye, and critical of Work —
He shifts the stem — a little —
To give your Core — a look —

But solemnest — to know
Your chance in Harvest moves
A little nearer — Every Sun
The Single — to some lives.

                                                                            F467 (1862)  J483

I can't help but think of another New England poet, Robert Frost, when I read this. His "After Apple Picking" also has a tree where fruit ripens and is picked or falls, a harvest time, and the sense that souls ripen in their season. No doubt Frost read Dickinson (in fact, he taught at Amherst College off and on for over forty years, beginning in 1917 -- not that long after Dickinson's poems began to be published), and like her, his use of everyday detail is frequently metaphysical. I think of him as in her lineage.
         In Frost's poem, he is the apple picker; it is his "two-pointed ladder" that is sticking up "toward heaven" as he picks and picks and picks.  Yet just as the harvest season serves as a metaphor for his own mortality, his act of sorting (some apples for the cellar to keep and others, the fallen, for the "cider-apple heap / As of no worth" – even if they are "not bruised, or spiked with stubble") places him as a somewhat conflicted god.

Paul Ranson, 1902
Dickinson's poem, on the other hand, is all apple. The Soul hangs on the tree of life, ripening along with all other souls. The Sun, a careful orchardist, is both crafting and evaluating the apples, "toiling at the Cheek" and shifting "the stem" a little to evaluate the "Core."  It's a rather analytical process: the Sun is "Cool of eye, and critical of Work" just as a master orchardist should be. As far as Dickinson's portrayals of the Deity, or the course of life, this is quite 'sunny'.
Dickinson would eventually write stanzas such as the following that paint him as hostile, if not cruel:
The blond assassin [frost that kills the flowers] passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.              (F1668)
He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full  music on;
He stuns you by degrees              (F77)
Essential oils are wrung:   
The attar from the rose   
Is not expressed by suns alone,   
It is the gift of screws.                  (F772)    
         But while the soul's ultimate ripeness is "A Solemn thing" as it senses its time is near and hears other beings make that long "drop," this interactive maturation is "Wonderful." An individual might feel she is ripe, but the master orchardist might think otherwise: perhaps she needs some extra sunshine, some new experience – good or bad – to bring a bit of redness to her cheek.
         I like the rather transgressive aspect of the sun moving the stem aside to peek at the "core" of the soul. Dickinson must have liked it too, for it is part of the "wonderful" stanza. It doesn't sound so very wonderful to me, but my core is nowhere near as forged as Dickinson's. She must have wanted, on some deep level, an appropriate and appreciative audience, someone to truly see her.
         The last stanza brings us the most solemn thing, which is to know that every day brings us closer to ripe falling – for fall we will – and that every day is the single last day for some lives. That is indeed a most solemn thing. The tactile sense of hearing them drop is eerie, fascinating, and chilling all at once. One wonders if, as in Frost's poem, they are headed for the cider heap, or if Dickinson is suggesting that the ripeness is all and after that ... the fruit simply falls.


  1. What an excellent essay!

    Frost's poem is one of his best. I love the description of the sensory experiences and the feverish imagery. I expect Frost was reflecting on Shakespeare as he wrote the poem ("human sleep"; "what dreams may come").

    Frost's poem is more prosaic than Dickinson. He doesn't have her flashes of brilliance -- or her daring use of language. He would never use "wonderful" as a noun -- as Dickinson does in this poem. And he is chained by his rhymes -- while Dickinson is freed by hers.

    1. I love Frost's poem, too, and I agree about the Shakespeare allusions. While his poem may be more prosaic, I do think his devices, including rhyming, knit his words and imagery together in a tactile dreamy way.

  2. I forgot to say -- Frost's grounding of his poem in vivid sensory imagery and using this as a contrast and transition to the experience of death reminds me of Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz when I died".

    Both poems deal with the transition of consciousness from life to death. Both are amazing poems.

  3. You were no "candidate for eternity" while at school,
    preferring instead the "sermons of Orpheus" and Eden
    present just beyond your door.

    (just a beginning to be finished this afternoon.)

  4. Glad to know I'm not the only one to notice a similarity between these to. Frost (sometimes grudgingly) admired Dickinson, and several of his poems are responses to hers. I wrote on these two poems in grad school back in 2001 for an American Renaissance poetry class.

    For an earlier use of this trope in the New England Consciousness that would have touched both Dickinson and Frost, check out Jonathan Edwards's emblem book "Images, or Shadows of Divine Things" (excerpts available in The Jonathan Edwards Reader). Edwards writes of the soul of the justified saint experiencing sanctification as being like that of fruit ripening on a tree. And of course the apple is associated with humanity and its "fall" in Western Christianity. I see a lot of skepticism in both Dickinson and in Frost, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were responding equally to that trope.

    1. Thank you -- quite interesting about Jonathan Edwards. Like you, I am very drawn to the two apple poems of Frost and Dickinson. I didn't realize Frost's admiration was at times grudging. But then again, her tiny, electrifying, and indelible footsteps would be very hard to follow. She is in many ways unsurpassable (and I am trying not to indulge in hyperbole).

  5. The “wonderful” stanza made me question a further layer of meaning - possibly too literal - that equates a poem ( soul) with a ripening fruit - this would mean that the male force of the gardener ( sun) would be the muse, or even in ED cosmology, the 2nd being of the poet. ED often seemed to split herself into dialectic halves.

  6. Seems strange to call the Sun “Cool of eye”. Right now “Hot of eye” would be welcome here in western Oregon as another cloudy, clammy winter begins. It's nice to have ED and fellow TPB fans with such cogent comments to keep us warm. Thank you, Susan, for this Wonderful Gift.