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08 December 2013

The Robin is the One

The Robin is the One
That interrupt the Morn
With hurried—few—express Reports
When March is scarcely on—

The Robin is the One
That overflow the Noon
With her cherubic quantity—
An April but begun—

The Robin is the One
That speechless from her Nest
Submit that Home—and Certainty
And Sanctity, are best

                                                            F501 (1863)  J828

Dickinson uses one of her favorite birds to illustrate a good bit of a woman's life. The robin, a symbol of rejuvenation and harbinger of spring, goes from young and hurried to mature and nurturing. I suspect Dickinson might have watched a similar progression in some of her best girl friends. The poem uses three stanzas for three stages.
        We begin with the robin dashing into the scene of emerging spring – early March. Having probably just arrived at her breeding territory, she blurts out a bit of gossip or perhaps "express Reports" of the season. Mainly, she's announcing her arrival and availability. Her song "interrupt[s] the otherwise quiet Morn."
        The second stanza takes us to the noon of the day, the prime of life. The robin's songs fill the air, sweet and pure as the song of a cherub. Note that the robin's song "overflow[s]" Noon. One season into spring and her sweet joy fills the day. No doubt a mate is near. (Yes, we know now that it is the male who does most of the singing, but I think Dickinson is thinking of young women here at the peak of their ripe and innocent beauty. They are charming and beautiful, whereas the male of the human species must remain more drab and pragmatic.)
Finally, we see the robin settled in her nest, quietly assuming an ideal Victorian motherhood. Dickinson's choice of abstract nouns is interesting: Home is the best place for the mother robin, but why mention "Certainty" and "Sanctity"? From the usage of her day, "certainty" implies "faithfulness" and "fidelity." The young robin must settle down – no more singing and calling attention to herself. "Sanctity" implies a safe haven, a "home on high" like heaven, just as the nest is high in the tree, far away from the dangers of earth. The good mother is faithful, pure, spiritual.

The question Dickinson leaves us is whether or not the robin has made a good trade. She has lost her song, become "speechless" in her nest. While the bird may find this to be the best state, I suspect Dickinson has other ideas. She herself never became speechless, never erased herself for the sake of nest and babies. In her poetry she continues to sing, although a deeper and often darker song than many of the lighthearted poetry of her younger years. Dickinson does retreat to her own nest – her familial home and her private room – but she continues to sing.

The poem is tightly constructed, particularly through the repetition of "The Robin is the One" as the first line of each stanza. Slant rhymes of "One" complete numerous other lines: Morn, on, Noon, begun. The first, second and fourth lines of each stanza are in iambic trimeter, with the third line in tetrameter. The clear, strong meter and rhyme produce a sense of predictability that, in Dickinson's trademark manner, she overturns in the last few phrases. The reader is glad that the robin is a good nesting mother, but can't help but feel sad for the loss of her song, particularly for such ambiguous states as "Certainty" and "Sanctity."


  1. Replies
    1. Guess it says something about the novel ...
      But thanks! Need that Dickinson brain work out.

  2. One interesting aspect of this poem is that ED uses a singular noun (Robin) as subject of each stanza, emphasizing the singular with the words "is the One". She then uses a plural verb (interrupt, overflow, submit). The actual subject in some sense comes after the verb (Reports, quantity, Certainty and Sanctity).

    The odd syntax creates a jarring effect the echoes the meaning of the word "interrupt" in the first stanza. I like it. I don't think that there is more to it than that.

    1. Yes, that's interesting; I hadn't thought about it. It does give an interrupted, tumbled quality -- as if the "One" is standing for the Many.

    2. I agree that the three plural verbs sound better. However, I disagree that there is any grammatical excuse for using plural verbs: “quantity” is singular, not plural, and “that Home—and Certainty / And Sanctity, are best” is the direct object of “Robin . . . submit”, not the “actual subject” of “Robin . . . submit”. Editors of The Atlantic Monthly (October 1891) simply could not abide the grammar error and corrected the verbs to singular, just the stuff ED complained of and came to expect from editors.

      ED used plural verbs because she thought they sounded better. Her academic "Promotion and Tenure Committee" wasn't looking over her shoulder for grammatical correctness.

  3. What line in the first stanza describes the Robin's song

    1. You might find it most easily by process of elimination.