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08 January 2014

The Birds begun at Four o'clock —

The Birds begun at Four o'clock —
Their period for Dawn —
A Music numerous as space —
But neighboring as Noon —

I could not count their Force —
Their Voices did expend
As Brook by Brook bestows itself
To multiply the Pond.

The Listener – was not —
Except occasional man —
In homely industry arrayed —
To overtake the Morn —

Nor was it for applause —
That I could ascertain —
But independent Ecstasy
Of Universe, and Men – 

By Six, the Flood had done —
No Tumult there had been
Of Dressing, or Departure —
And yet the Band – was gone —

The Sun engrossed the East —
The Day Resumed the World —  controlled
The Miracle that introduced
Forgotten, as fulfilled.

                                                                                    F504 (1863)  J783

This lovely summer poem uses two hours of a summer morning – between four and six a.m. – to not only pay tribute to birdsong but to remind us of the unseen wonders and miracles that move the world. Dickinson opens the poem in the first pearly hints of dawn as birdsong fills the air. She likens the multitude of voices to the swelling babble of numerous brooks as they join together in a pond. The only other "Listener" would be the occasional workman up early to begin his day.
       The fourth and fifth stanzas make a distinction between bird and human: the birds burst into song out of "independent Ecstasy" rather than for applause and recognition. Once the sun has "engrossed" the sky, however, the songs cease, the birds having finished and perhaps even flown away without any fuss. It is as if the birds daily gather in force to sing the day into miraculous existence. We humans are a bit obtuse, rarely noticing this – or if we do, quickly forgetting it.

Among the very nice images and metaphors Dickinson employs, I particularly like the rich paradoxical abstraction of "Music numerous as space – / But neighboring as Noon –".  Some contemporary physicists describe the vast, seemingly emptiness of space as woven by tiny vibrating strings. As birdsong fills the air, Dickinson implies, the music takes on a similar seamless quality despite the discrete nature of each vocalization. Despite this almost mystic plentitude, the birdsong is as close to us, as familiar, as "neighboring" as noon.
       Dickinson made some changes in this poem. Franklin's version has some key differences from that published by Johnson. The first is commonsensical: "The Listener" vs. "Witnesses." 
by Sandy Snavely
The workmen no doubt could hear but not necessarily see the birds. The second substitution is "Universe" for "Deity." That's a bit more telling. The birds' ecstasy is not only for orchard and flower beds (or whatever else they like about "Men"), but for all the world and cosmos. Perhaps Dickinson felt that "Deity" was too specific, or that while saints might sing in ecstasy of the Creator, birds are filled with joy at the creation.
       The last change is in the last stanza: "Resumed" for "controlled." I think this is simply a better poetic choice – richer, more subtle and surprising. It also makes a bit more sense. Daytime ushers in or resumes the active (in a human sense) world. It doesn't control it.

The poem has a regular rhyme and meter pattern. Each stanza (with the exception of the first line of the first) has the first, second, and fourth lines in iambic trimeter. The third line (plus the first line of the poem) is always iambic tetrameter. The second and fourth lines of each stanza feature slant rhymes. This pattern is similar to the common hymn or ballad form of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines (seen in the first stanza). To me, the variance introduces a rather expository abruptness. Contrast the flow of "The Sun engrossed the East / The Day controlled the World" to the first lines: "The Birds begun at Four o'clock – / Their period for Dawn." While the latter seems to roll off the tongue in a lulling story-telling mode, the former seems a bit choppy.
       The effect is partly visual as it diminishes when the first two lines are read as if they were one iambic hexameter. By dividing them and introducing choppiness, Dickinson maintains emphasis on the events on each line as is appropriate for a story condensed into a two-hour period.


  1. In the biography White Heat (about the lives and frendship of ED and Higginson) the author persuasively argues that this poem derives from a description by Higginson of an early morning in Summer. Higginson was something of a nature writer and ED regularly read his articles.

    I don't have the book with me, but when I have a chance I will try to find the passage.

  2. From page 155 of White Heat, author Brenda Wineapple quotes from "Out-Door Papers" Higgenson's first book, a collection of his essays from The Atlantic published in June 1863. The quote describes rowing on Lake Quinsigamond just before dawn:

    "Precisely at half past three, a song-sparrow above our heads gave one liquid trill, so inexpressibly sudden and delicious, that it seemed to set to music every atom of freshness and fragrance that nature held; then the whole shore and lake were vocal with song."

    We know that ED read the book because she refers to it in a much later letter to Higginson. Letters 458 at page 552 (Spring 1876).

    ED revisited the subject in a later poem "At Half past three" -- FR 1099.

  3. I noticed that the 4th stanza read "...Universe, and Men;" however, the correct transcription should read "of Deity and Men" -- "universe" really changes the point.

  4. While you may think 'Resumed" is a better choice- my favorite part of the poem is where she says the Sun engrossed the East, the Day Controlled the World.
    I have studied and absorbed Emily's poems since I was a young man, and committed hundreds of her poems to memory,and that line always makes me feel totally in awe of her and the cosmos- it is one of the strongest moments in all of her work- for me! So there is merit in Thomas Johnson's choice to go with "Controlled" - in my humble opinion. Loved your article-thanks for putting it out there!!

    1. I now love it, too. I'm a convert to 'Controlled' -- thanks!

  5. This TPB conversation about ED’s alternatives reminds me of Fortuna’s gift to us when Vinnie Dickinson and Maggie Maher (the second Dickinson housekeeper named “Maggie”) chose not to burn ED’s manuscripts after ED’s death in 1886, despite ED’s ambiguous instructions. Maggie often does not get mentioned for her part in that decision, but the website of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, which should be authoritative, gives Maggie some credit:

    “Margaret or “Maggie” Maher spent decades dutifully guarding Emily Dickinson from social callers . . . . Maher is likely responsible for preserving a significant number of Dickinson poems as well as the poet’s sole confirmed surviving photographic likeness.”,sole%20confirmed%20surviving%20photographic%20likeness.

    An example of Maggie’s invisible role:

    “Lavinia discovered Emily's poetry and as Emily had not left any specific instructions on what to do with it, Lavinia pursued tirelessly to get the poetry published which she would not have done had Emily instructed her to destroy these.”