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11 January 2014

Like Mighty Foot Lights — burned the Red

Like Mighty Foot Lights — burned the Red
At Bases of the Trees —
The far Theatricals of Day
Exhibiting — to These —

'Twas Universe — that did applaud —

While Chiefest — of the Crowd —
Enabled by his Royal Dress —
Myself distinguished God —
                                                                          F507 (1863)  J595

In Dickinson's time, theaters used gaslights and limelight to illuminate the stage. Gaslights could be operated at a distance and colored by the use of screens. They were placed at the foot of the stage and adjacent areas. Limelight was a completely different technology that required an attendant at all times to adjust the block of calcium oxide and the gas cylinders that fueled it. It's brilliant light could be focused, and so the best place for an actor on stage would be in the limelight.
       In this poem, the stage is set with forest and the footlights have been screened red. Dickinson uses a reverse bit of imagination. Instead of sitting in a theatre imagining that the footlights are rays of the setting sun, she is imagining that a real sunset illuminating the base of real trees is comprised of "Mighty Foot Lights." She develops the conceit as God presenting a show, call it "The Drama of Day," to an audience – the Universe.
       The footlights burn red towards the end of the show to signal that the "far Theatricals" are about to end. The universe applauds. The poet, observing all, believes she sees the playwright and producer among the crowd. His "Royal Dress" tips her off to his true identity: God. Maestro!


  1. I've just come across your blog, and am greatly enjoying your commentary. Thanks for doing this!

    I initially thought god was more likely to be simply a member of the audience, and not the producer, but your interpretation does make sense. I think I don't know enough about Dickinson's religious beliefs to decide.

    1. I hadn't contemplated the idea that god was simply a spectator for the show, as that would raise the question of who turned on the lights. The question complicates the poem, and I suspect Dickinson, while probably thinking of god as the instigator of the day/night show, would like the reverberation of a little doubt.

    2. She could be comparing her artistic process (herself as god) to crepuscular rays (light coming from the sun--god--illuminating the forest).

      This might be weird, but consider:

      "burned the Red \\ At Bases of the Trees -" Either the act of writing down a poem in a notebook (bases of the trees being the individuals pages); or possibly referring to getting her poems corrected by a poem (or even just read or admired by someone)--I'm leaning towards the second version at the moment.

      "The far Theatricals of Day \\ Exhibiting — to These —" She displays, conjures, captures the days events (sunrise, noon, sunset) or nature to these "Mighty Foot Lights" (editors or readers).

      In the second stanza, she recalls how the universe reverberates in her poem, and is both the subject and audience of the poem; the "chiefest" (or most important--maybe Higginson as the most important reader, or Sue), enabled by his/her importance, declares her heretically to be God!!

      "Mighty Foot Lights" might work as Sue as she clearly served as inspiration of some of ED's poetry (the light bit), and she clearly was a big character in ED's life (Mighty), and the "Foot" might be in jest... if Sue or Higginson were voracious readers of ED, then she's jesting that they are under her spell.

    3. In this line of interpretation, "burn the Red" could refer to fuel the flame or passion or writing poetry.

    4. I think your gloss on this poem works pretty well. Dickinson writes the poems fueled by burning passion. Although she doesn't publish, the Universe applauds. And she may be suggesting God is part of the audience or she may, as you suggest, be thinking of a favorite person who would stand for god to her.

      I rather think the poem is not doing quite so much, that it is another of Dickinson's paeans to day and sunset. Admittedly, she could be doing both things at once!

  2. Maybe, God could be ED (distinguished by the chief guest) or possibly the reader (she distinguishes the chief guest as God).

    To me, I read the poem as a playful daydream. ED composing a poem about being admired by someone deeply important to her (the most important person in the universe). In the daydream, she envisions this most important person, and the admiration she receives by giving a poem to this most important person.

    1. I was rereading some poems on this blog when I discovered one that supports your idea of Dickinson playfully imagining her poems as entertainment:

    2. Thanks--I read that poem here a while back too, and completely forgot about it. I wasn't able to crack that puzzle poem. I didn't understand that she was writing about the northern lights. But, I'm happy that this theme of poetry as entertainment runs through at least one other poem!

  3. “These” (the audience, Line 4), are “Trees” (Line 2). ED’s sitting in the last row of seats at the back of the auditorium, watching the footlights/limelight shine through the audience of “Trees”. The time is sunset, which means “The far Theatricals of Day” are happening far to the west of the observer/poet, ED.

    From ED’s second-floor west-facing window above her writing desk, any trees in front of Sue and Austin’s house (“Evergreens”) would look like Susan K’s illustration (above, but maybe not so dramatic).

    ED’s “distinguished God” (Nature?) sits with the “Crowd”, but wears “Royal Dress”.

    To me, ED says her God lives, not in some faraway home called “Heaven”, but rather here, on Earth among us, the “Crowd”. God’s “heaven" is here on Earth.

    Pipa’s Song (1841)

    “The year’s at the spring,
    And day’s at the morn;
    Morning’s at seven;
    The hill-side’s dew-pearl'd;
    The lark’s on the wing;
    The snail’s on the thorn;
    God’s in His heaven—
    All’s right with the world!”

    Note that Robert Browning capitalizes “His” in Line 7, but not “heaven”.