Jun. 8, 2005

318 I'll tell you how the Sun rose

by Emily Dickinson

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Poem: "318" by Emily Dickinson from Complete Poems. © Little, Brown, 1924. Reprinted with permission.


I'll tell you how the Sun rose—
A Ribbon at a time.
The Steeples swam in Amethyst,
The news, like Squirrels ran—
The Hills untied their Bonnets—
The Bobolinks—begun—
Then I said softly to myself—
"That must have been the Sun!"
But how he set—I know not—
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while—
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray—
Put gently up the evening Bars—
And led the flock away—

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1862 that Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson asking him to be her friend and her advisor.

That spring, she had read an article that Higginson had published in the Atlantic Monthly, offering advice to young writers. He challenged them to try to capture the world they lived in with all of its ordinary detail.

Dickinson had started seriously writing poetry a few years before that. She had written a few hundred poems, and she sent four of them to Higginson to ask his opinion of them. She sent him a poem that went:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon—
Lie the meek members of the Resurrectio—
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone!

Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender—
Soundless as dots—on a Disk of Snow—

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was confused by Emily Dickinson. His letters to her have not survived, but we know from Dickinson's letters to him that he didn't care for her inexact rhymes and her rhythms which seemed off-kilter to him. He told her that her poetry was spasmodic, uncontrolled and wayward. But Dickinson kept writing him that spring, asking for more advice.

At that point in her life, most of the people Emily Dickinson had been close to, outside of her family, had either moved away or died. She wrote to Higginson that her only companions were the hills, the sundown, and her dog. Higginson wrote back to her that maybe what she needed was a friend. So on this day, in 1862, she wrote a letter to Higginson and said, "Would you have time to be the 'friend' you should think I need. I have a little shape: it would not crowd your desk, nor make much racket as the mouse that dents your galleries."

Dickinson scholars think that she had some kind of romantic attachment to Higginson. There is evidence that she tried to conceal her correspondence with him. And after the first letter she sent, she mailed all the additional letters to him from outside of Amherst.

They kept up their correspondence for the rest of her life. She eventually stopped asking for his advice about her poetry. He visited her in 1870, and when he arrived at the door, he said, "She came to me with two daylilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand and said, 'These are my introduction.'" They talked about literature, and she gave him her famous definition of poetry. She said to Higginson, "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

Higginson found it exhausting to visit Emily Dickinson. He wrote to his wife, "I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much."

After Emily Dickinson died, her sister Lavinia found her manuscripts, thousands of poems. She turned to Higginson as a possible editor. He wasn't sure there would be enough for a whole book, so Mabel Loomis Todd did the actual editing of her first collection.

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