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20 June 2013

Of Being is a Bird

Of Being is a Bird
The likest to the Down
An Easy Breeze do put afloat
The General Heavens — upon —

It soars — and shifts — and whirls —
And measures with the Clouds
In easy — even — dazzling pace —
No different the Birds —

Except a Wake of Music
Accompany their feet —
As did the Down emit a Tune —
For Ecstasy — of it
                                          F462 (1862)  J653
What is the difference between a bird and a piece of fluffy down? Song and the sheer joy of being. Dickinson builds to this difference by first seemingly praising the down. Once it has been put afloat by an “Easy Breeze,” it soars and whirls in the heavens in from an “easy” to a  “dazzling pace.” In this the Down is “No different [from] the Birds.”
photo: Mary Smiley: Courting Great Egrets
       I picture birds, here, soaring up among the clouds, shifting and whirling with the wind – or even like the egrets in the picture, dancing for their mates. But unlike the quiet Down, birds are accompanied by a “Wake of Music.” It’s a lovely phrase and, like a wake itself, trails meaning as it passes. According to the essential Emily Dickinson Lexicon, meanings for the noun “wake” include “Serenade, divertimento, festival, funeral party, wave, air current, or track left by the passing of a vessel.
       I like thinking of birds leaving music in their wake. In an interesting transposition, Dickinson has music accompanying the birds’ feet rather than, say, their wings. There’s a kind of logic to it: we get about with our feet while the birds use their wings. In that sense their wings are their feet.
       Why do birds sing? Dickinson doesn’t know except to say that it is as if a bit of fluffy down emitted a tune just for the “Ecstasy” of it. I know some birders who would agree. Sometimes the birds really do just sing for joy.


  1. I just started reading "The Prowling Bee" and am enjoying it greatly. Thanks and please keep it up.

    1. Thanks, Vince. Welcome to the blog! Comments always welcome.

  2. great insight on the "wake of music"

  3. In addition to your fascinating point about the word 'feet' relating to wings, I wonder if the noun is also a play on words, and suggests the impressive, dizzying 'feat' of the birds that can soar high up in the sky, as beautifully evoked in the second stanza? Their song can therefore be seen as the accompaniment to their agile flight. Furthermore, the reference to 'feet' may also seem an appropriate choice of words in the melodic context as we do refer to a 'foot' of verse, for example.

    I also love the way the effortless movement of the down/bird is emphasised by the repetition of the word 'easy', and its sheer weightlessness implied by the verb 'afloat'. The reference to the sky as 'General Heavens' also links the birds with divinity, and suggests why the mystery of their song cannot be fathomed or explained. Their joy and rhapsody simply exist, like art for art's sake.

    1. I love all your points. "An easy breeze do put afloat" is like flight itself. Like the down, I imagine Dickinson feeling that could she soar and shift and whirl in the air she would likewise want to sing for the ecstasy of it.
      I am appreciating your so insightful and thoughtful comments. Please keep them coming!

  4. Thank you very much. Am a big fan of your blog, so will keep the comments up!

  5. It’s easy to imagine reclusive ED lying on her back on a blanket in her backyard garden, watching the clouds and birds and floating puffs of “down” (cottonwood or aspen seeds?) passing overhead. We know she was fond of sky-gazing:

    “The Clouds – like listless Elephants –
    Horizons – straggled down –”

    F216, 1861, ‘On this long storm the Rainbow rose –”

    I love that last line, “As did the Down emit a Tune — / For Ecstasy — of it”, . . .Just for the fun of it.

    1. I agree - that last line! and also the Clouds line you quote. I love this poem.