And Sunrise grows so near
That We can touch the Spaces –
It’s time to smooth the Hair –
And get the Dimples ready –
And wonder We could care
For that Old – faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –
FR 679 (1863) J347
This is a delightful poem no matter how many times and in how many ways you read it. The meter and diction are simple and common. This is not a flashy, hair-on-the-neck-rising Dickinson poem, but one presenting a disarming metaphor of Night and Sunrise. It’s imagery is feminine and fresh. Probably all the great poets devote lines to the welcome transformation of Night into Day at Sunrise, but have any of them ever advised the reader to prepare for the event by primping?
There are several ways one might read the poem and its symbolism.
In the first and simplest, the poem is a rather literal sketch of morning ritual. During the dark of night we sleep and dream and sometimes those dreams are frightening or disturbing. When the sun comes up, the dreams and fears fade and it’s time to do the hair, warm up the smile, and wind up that positive attitude. We gain daylight confidence as the world becomes tangible. We can now see what is around us, recognize things and the space between things. We can reach and grasp, unlike in the dark where we grope and fumble.
A second reading speaks to the human condition and mythos. Two realms, light and dark, comprise our lives. Every day involves a journey towards night with its dark dreamings. Each night brings us back to where Sunrise illuminates the world. Light is consciousness – we recognize and can ‘touch the Spaces’, whereas night’s darkness is the realm of the subconscious. We cannot touch anything in its dark mysteries. This cycle between dark and light continues throughout our lives. Its rhythms and imagery pervade our myths and stories. The Underworld is sketched as dark while Heaven is filled with light. No wonder we fix our hair and make a smile: these small gestures are transitional acts of faith that light follows dark as surely as spring follows winter.
A third reading is a teaching metaphor on how to face death. We fear the dimming of the light of life and we particularly fear our final Midnight. But Dickinson reminds us that Sunrise comes, that we had nothing to be afraid of, that night/death is but a doorway into Sunrise – life beyond death. We experience a different existence, one palpable and real; even Space is real. As this transitional moment approaches, it’s time to fix ourselves up and be ready.
I like this third reading and note that Dickinson does not have us praying or repenting or calling out to God. Instead, she keeps the light touch. We ready ourselves to meet our Maker by patting the hair and going full-dimple smile.
Dickinson could have written this in iambic pentameter rather than iambic trimeter for a more stately effect. But the hair and dimple instructions are just too playful and the short lines underscore that. They also create a clever irony in the gravity of the topic (if readings two or three are taken) and its poetic treatment.