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29 June 2013

Whole Gulfs — of Red, and Fleets — of Red —

Whole Gulfs — of Red, and Fleets — of Red —
And Crews — of solid Blood —
Did place upon the West — Tonight —
As 'twere specific Ground —

And They — appointed Creatures —
In Authorized Arrays —
Due — promptly — as a Drama —
That bows — and disappears —

                                                                            F468 (1862)  J658

I'm enjoying the occasional sunset and sunrise picture Dickinson paints. This one imagines a red gulf with a fleet of red ships crewed by sailors "of solid Blood." The montage seems assembled as if it were a performance on a particular parade ground. Each boat and crew member has an alloted position, a time to appear, and then when the show is over, the crew takes its bows "and disappears."

The first line comes on strong with the one-syllable words in regular iambic tetrameter. The reversal of the 'lf" of "Gulfs" with the "fl" of "Fleets" adds a textured contrast to the short bursts of the repeated "Red." The rest of the first stanza maintains the momentum as the sunset climaxes.
         The second stanza, just like the sunset, begins to ebb. There are more ellipses, the reader needing to fill in words the poet has left out. The tetrameter lines lack the final accented syllable, trailing off with a feminine ending. The last word, "disappears," seems almost whispered in contrast to the poem's hearty and vivid opening line.


  1. You have persuaded me that "The name -- of it -- is 'Autumn'" is a war poem. This poem, also from the same season, can be read that way, too.

    The opening of red, and red and "solid blood" is similar to the vivid descriptions of leaves in "Autumn". The "specific Ground" of the fourth line evokes a battleground.

    And the "appointed Creatures" in "Authorized Arrays" are like the flesh and blood soldiers drafted and arrayed for battle.

    The final metaphor of a drama sounds a philosophical note from the poignancy, impermanence and illusory power of the experience of sunset. Like Shakespeare's metaphor for life as a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, the blood and emotions of the war fade and disappear.

    But it is also just a poem about sunset after all. The word "promptly" in the last stanza is surprising and the metaphor of the drama adds a sense of choreography -- that we read an intention of "other" into our emotional relationship with the natural world.

    1. I read it as war, too, though not as strongly as "Autumn." If "Gulfs" hadn't fallen so close upon the heels of "Autumn" I probably would have spent a bit of time on that imagery. I was hoping 'someone' would jump in ...
      Reading your comment re-piqued my interest in the Whittier poem referred to in the Autumn commentary. Whittier insists that Nature continues her rhythms and cycles and flowering plenty despite raging wars (ah, for a simpler, pre-nuclear time...). I wonder if Dickinson isn't doubling her vision in that way. Seeing blood, seeing sunsets and fall, choosing Nature as her lodestone even if the lens is occasionally Battle. (Whittier poem: [])

  2. Evocative poem and commentary. I am struck by the way Dickinson evokes the rich incandescence of the sky at sunset. To the speaker, it is clearly so vivid, it is almost tangible and is thereby described in such concrete terms ('Fleets', 'Crews', 'solid Blood' and 'Ground'). The first stanza represents the elements of the sky at sunset with military and nautical imagery, as if the clouds are strategically placed warships ready for battle. The emphasis on the colour red also adds a frisson of danger, as well as alluding to the bloodshed of war. In theatrical terms, the colour red also highlights the visual pomp and splendour of the fleets, which sets up the drama analogy in the second stanza. As mentioned, the final line is wonderfully evocative with its hushed silibant sounds in the verbs 'bows' and 'disappears' which lend the climax of the poem an enigmatic air as the sun finally sets, and night comes on. The dying light of the sun also, implicitly, points to the transience and futility of human life, especially as the clouds are personified as 'crews' and 'fleets', and it is they that 'bow' with the sun, like theatrical performers after the final act, and ultimately fade away.

    1. I'm struck with the emphasis on schedule -- reinforcing the battle imagery. The the 'disappears' at the end is like a whisper. Thanks for the eloquent and thoughtful comment! I love rereading the poems when I find interesting commentary.

  3. Thank you; I'm glad you appreciated the comment. Yes, the allusion to a kind of military order and structure is evident in both stanzas. The words 'appointed' and 'Authorized' almost imply that the various aspects of the sunset are part of a coherent, divine plan. Each element of the sky plays its assigned part in the battle or dramatic spectacle of sunset. The words 'Due - promptly' can be seen to allude to the unchanging diurnal trajectory of the sun, the setting of which can be expected at a particular time of the day.

  4. As a long-time sunset watcher, the “promptly...bows - and disappears” is very evocative. We have all watched in awe how almost instantaneously the red can totally bleed from a vivid sky as the residual light fades.