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26 August 2013

The World — feels Dusty

The World — feels Dusty
When We stop to Die —
We want the Dew — then —
Honors — taste dry —

Flags — vex a Dying face —
But the least Fan
Stirred by a friend's Hand —
Cools — like the Rain —

Mine be the Ministry
When thy Thirst comes —
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch —
And Hybla Balms —

                                                              F491 (1862)  J715

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" – so goes the familiar phrase from the Anglican burial service. It is based on the biblical account in Genesis of how God created humanity out of the dust of the earth. It is no wonder, then, that the world "feels Dusty" as we die – although the wonderful phrase is all Dickinson. Dickinson goes on to note that we "stop to Die" as if death is a way station on the soul's passage. Honors are not what is wanted at this juncture: they "taste dry" as if they, too, are dust. It is the ministry of a friend that satisfies the soul's thirst and eases the way.

       The flags in the second stanza represent war. Soldiers die under them and for them, but they ultimately bring no comfort, no sense of glory. Instead, they "vex" the dying. Dickinson was writing in the midst of the Civil War, and this one line succinctly – and with great understatement – de-glorifies war. It is a direct rejection of the famous lines from Horace that Dickinson no doubt read: "It is sweet and right to die for your country."

        These lines were often quoted at the beginning of World War I, but poet Wilfred Owen demolishes them in his powerful 1918 " Dulce et Decorum Est " which concludes:  

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Thessaly's Vale of Tempe
   Owens is much more explicit than Dickinson. Yet her poem also suggests that it is a bitter thing to die under a flag. Neither it nor even the honors he may have achieved bring him any peace in the end. That requires the soothing hand of a loving friend.
    In the concluding stanza, the poet addresses either a generalized "you" or a particular person. She wants to minister to the dying – to ease the thirst and apply a soothing balm. It is a hymn and a call: If you care for the dying, be there for them. There was a poet, equally great, writing at the same time, who did just that: Walt Whitman who volunteered to work as a nurse on the battlefield and at hospitals.

  - Hybla is a town in Sicily famed since antiquity for its bees and honey. Romantic author Leigh Hunt's 1883 booklet, "A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla," draws from myth and Greek poet Theocritus in discussing the restorative properties of this honey.

  - The "Dews of Thessaly" are probably a reference to the lovely pools and waters of the Vale of Tempe – located in the north of Thessaly (a region of modern Greece).   John Lemprière in his Classical Dictionary gives this description of Tempe:
… The poets have described it as the most delightful spot on the earth, with continual cooling shades, and verdant walks, which the warbling of birds rendered more pleasant and romantic, and which the gods often honored with their presence.
  - Aaron Copland uses this poem in his 1950 composition "Eight poems of Emily Dickinson." This is a performance of the poem with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Saint-Paul Chamber Orchestra conductred by Hugh Wolff (note that Copland changes "Thessaly" to "thyself" and "Hybla" to "Holy").


  1. The meter and rhyme of this poem seems unusual for Dickinson -- at least to me. The first two stanzas have a broken rhythm -- particularly the fourth and eighth lines. This is intentional -- the lines are parallel. The exact rhyme at the end of the second and fourth lines with the broken rhythm bothers me.

    I like the second stanza. Here, the close rhyme between "fan" and "hand" overpowers the off rhyme between "fan" and "rain" at the ends of the lines -- but I like the effect of this.

    The last stanza is beautiful. The "Ministry" in extremis comes from a friend administering balms and "dews" from nature and antiquity and not from the church.

    1. Now that you mention it, although I do recall earlier poems where the poet is eager to minister with love, balm, and a cool drink, I don't remember any where churchy things happen.

    2. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. Emily Dickinson provides a never ceasing source of balm and calm for my own life and you really help bring so much of her meaning and motivation to life.

  2. Copland used older editions of Emily's poetry for his songs, so the text of this one is slightly different; for instance, there are no "Hybla balms" in the song. One wishes his songs could be edited to accommodate the texts as we now know them, but alas, he's no longer with us.

  3. There's no "Thessaly" in the song, either! The last lines in the song read, "Dew of thy Self to fetch / and Holy Balms."

    1. I read somewhere that he was looking at Dickinson's handwriting, which is difficult to parse. Perhaps it isn't strange that he saw Thessaly as "Thyself" and "Hybla" as "Holy." Must admit that "Dew of thy Self" is an interesting phrase.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Even w the word difference, the Copeland video w Martha Lipton is incredibly beautiful. YouTube it.

  5. Thank you for your readings of Dickinson's poems. This is a favorite of mine, which I first encountered when working with a pianist and soprano to perform the Copland song cycle (I gave a talk). The textual changes, I've assumed, derived from the edited editions Copland had available to him. It would be interesting to know if he had access to manuscripts. Johnson's 1955 Complete Poems inverts the last two lines--an incoherence corrected by Franklin but not yet, I believe, by Little, Brown. I pause at claims like "The flags in the second stanza represent war." Assuming Dickinson wrote the poem around 1863, it might indeed reference the Civil War (much less explicitly than "It feels a shame to be Alive" (J444), but the image, and the poem itself, strike me as more confidential-- juxtaposing the reviving intimacies of "the least fan/stirred by a friend's hand" against the "dry taste" of public "Honors," represented by the "vexing" flags. The shift to the vocative case in the last stanza is the poem's most breathtaking turn--a "thy" has been listening all along--and this, I think, makes the poem a candidate for the group of Dickinson's "Master" poems.

    1. I just spent some pleasant moments looking at old publications that had this poem. The lines Copland used came from Further Poems by Emily Dickinson (for those following this thread). If you look at the manuscript (kindly made available by Emily Dickinson Archive), it is hard to make the case for Copland's words, although I think they make sense in his composition as the references are fairly arcane today.

      I think you're right about the primacy of the devotion versus the settings. While the flags might reference the war, the emphasis is on the desire to alleviate the beloved's pain and bring some peace and amelioration. I sort of jumped on the war imagery at the expense of the beautifully rendered expression of love.

      Thank you for the insightful commentary.

      I appreciate your attention to the 'thy' -- it is a 'breathtaking turn' diving from a rather polished and brief meditation on

  6. I take "flags" to mean social causes of any kind.

    1. I think I'm going to have to broaden my understanding in this way -- maybe, but not necessarily flags on a field of war, but any sort of banner. Here's the Dickinson Lexicon on 'flag': "Banner; streamer; ensign; fabric swag of national colors; [word play] iris plant; funeral flower.