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23 February 2015

They called me to the Window, for

They called me to the Window, for
" 'Twas Sunset" — Some one said —
I only saw a Sapphire Farm —
And just a Single Herd —

Of Opal Cattle — feeding far
Upon so vain a Hill —
As even while I looked — dissolved —
Nor Cattle were — nor Soil —

But in their Room — a Sea — displayed —
And Ships — of such a size
As Crew of Mountains — could afford —
And Decks — to seat the skies —

This — too — the Showman rubbed away —
And when I looked again —
Nor Farm — nor Opal Herd — was there —
Nor Mediterranean —
                                         F589 (1863)  J628

Dickinson seems to take particular pleasure in sunrise and sunset. I've put a list of sunset poems below – several of which are among my favorites. Like others on the list, this one lyrically sketches the ephemeral but epic loveliness of the setting sun. 
        In the previous poem we had an Inquisitor. This poem features a "Showman" displaying his art. The material, the sky; the medium, setting sun and clouds. The real showman, though, is the poet who sees an ever-changing panoply of scenes and presents them to the reader for delight.

The first stanza is ironic at the expense of her family – or whoever might have been present. It was certainly no secret that Dickinson enjoyed the rising and setting sun, and this particular sunset must have been particularly lovely. So these well-meaning folk call her
over, "for / 'Twas Sunset". It is the following "I only saw" that is ironic, as if she rushed over to see this grand thing and instead only saw ... well, she embarks on what she saw in an imaginative tour de force. The some one's "Sunset" becomes a series of dazzling images: a sapphire farm with a herd of opal cattle feeding on an ephemeral hill of cloud; then the clouds become giant ships upon the deep blue Mediterranean, so big their decks could "seat the skies". We are to be imagining the sky becoming dotted with stars. The clouds floating below them would offer the decks upon which they ride.
But at last the Showman rubs away the evening's entertainment with the setting of the sun. It's a lovely performance by both Showman and Poet.

Other sunset poems (you can find these by using the search bar beneath the banner)"

"The Guest is gold and crimson" (F44)
"If this is 'fading'" (F119)
"The Sun kept stooping – stooping – low!" (F182)
"Where Ships of Purple – gently toss" (F296)
"This – is the land – the Sunset washes" (F297)
"She sweeps with many-colored Brooms" (F318)
"Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple" (F321)
"How the old mountains drip with sunset" (F327),
"Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red" (F468), 
"The Day undressed – Herself" (F495)
"I send two Sunsets" (F557)


  1. "The Day came slow — till Five o'clock — " is a sunrise poem also described in jewel tones. :)

    And ED describes the sky in sea terms in "A Bird, came down the Walk —"

    No wonder she "[kept] the Sabbath staying home —" :)

    1. I think she was a person whose days were bracketed by enjoyment of sunrise and sunset. And no electricity to diminish the change from light to dark.

  2. The poem is a tour de force indeed.

    I love the way the window provides Dickinson with the frame for her 'painting' with words, through which she seeks to rival and outdo the splendour of Nature itself and also, implicitly, the skill of the visual artist or painter to represent it.

    The poem's opening line is insightful as it subtly reveals the speaker's reclusive and seemingly withdrawn nature, suggested by the fact that she was prompted, or 'called to the window', by others. The impersonal nature of the pronouns 'they' and 'Some one' also convey a curious sense of the poet's distance and detachment from those around her in her immediate household.

    The imagery is particularly rich and evocative as Dickinson becomes increasingly bravura and hyperbolic with her metaphors. The intense blue and the sky and the glow of the setting light are described as precious gemstones ('Sapphire' and 'Opal'), which, in their artistry, subtly allude to the very artifice of Dickinson's poem, which is Nature recreated to enduring effect through words. Indeed, unlike the changing patterns and fleeting hues of the sky which are 'dissolved' or 'rubbed away' quickly, the poet's words on the page are permanent and lasting.

    As mentioned in the commentary, the phrase 'I only saw' is ironic and pseudo self-deprecating. The fact that Dickinson has just been called to the window and is subsequently describing her magnificent poetic vision of the sky makes it appear as though her response to the sunset is a spontaneous, improvisational one, which thereby only serves to highlight or trumpet her skill as a poet even further.

    Another striking impression in the poem, as mentioned above, is the sense of the sun putting on an almost magical performance (for the human observer). This is emphasised by the verb 'displayed' and the fact that the sun is described, with capitalization to suggests its grandeur, as a 'Showman'. Yet Dickinson can be seen to be mightier him for she has demonstrated exactly what she can do with the enduring power of words and language.

    1. I particularly like "opal cattle" -- both for the image (and, as you point out, the gem quality) and for the sound which is sort of a mouthful: the feminine rhyming of the 'pul' sounds almost humorous while the visual is fresh and lush

  3. Insightful Jimmy, to see the coyness in the poet's voice here, and the subtleties of it, and also to see the "Show" of the poem as having more endurance than the sunset, while displaying a similar kind of radiance. It's a particularly skillful and lavish use of language. It's a fun one to say out loud. In fact, it wasn't until I said it out loud that I heard the wonderful sound of this line...
    " 'Twas Sunset" — Some one said —", which then set me up for all of the rest of the ess sounds to follow. Then there are those feminine UL sounds in the second stanza,

    Of OpAL CattLE — feeding far
    Upon so vain a hILL —
    As even whILE I Looked — disSOLved —
    Nor CattLE were — nor SOIL—


    There is also the fabulous rhyme of Mediterranean with "when I looked again" in the last stanza.

    I wonder if the double use of the word "herd" is meant to signify a pun on "heard". Opal herd, as if what we are hearing has the same visual splendor of an opal.

  4. Franklin exercised editorial prerogative (again!), replaced ED’s delightfully idiosyncratic and easily interpreted misspelling “Opon” (Line 6), with boring, proper “Upon”. I wish he wouldn’t do that. It dilutes ED’s lovely bizarreness.

  5. ED suggested two alternatives, in Line 3 and Line 9 [in brackets]:

    “I only saw a Sapphire [an Amber] Farm —”

    “But in their Room [stead] — a Sea — displayed —”

    I like the glowing sunset “Sapphire” Farm, but Cattle and Soil “in their Room” makes no sense to me, unless her window frames a giant room. “In their stead — a Sea —” makes good sound and sense.

    Too bad we can’t choose, or maybe we can. Thanks, ED, for giving us a choice.

  6. Stanza 4 goes from dying sunset to vanished dream, and doubt that it ever happened. ED, and we, are left with nothing. “This — too — the Showman rubbed away —”. ED channels Shakespeare:

    “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on, and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.”

    The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1