Symbolism and Natural Reading in Emily Dickinson’s #322
A close reading by Mark Anderson
There came a Day at Summer’s full, 1
Entirely for me – 2
I thought that such were for the Saints, 3
Where Resurrections – be – 4
The Sun, as common, went abroad, 5
The flowers, accustomed, blew, 6
As if no soul the solstice passed 7
That maketh all things new – 8
The time was scarce profaned, by speech – 9
The symbol of a word 10
Was needless, as a Sacrament, 11
The Wardrobe – of our Lord – 12
Each was to each The Sealed Church, 13
Permitted to commune this – time – 14
Lest we too awkward show 15
At Supper of the Lamb. 16
The Hours slid fast – as Hours will, 17
Clutched tight, by greedy hands – 18
So faces on two Decks, look back, 19
Bound to opposing lands – 20
And so when all the time had leaked, 21
Without external sound 22
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix – 23
We gave no other bond – 24
Sufficient troth, that we shall rise – 25
Deposed – at length, the Grave – 26
To that new Marriage, 27
Justified – through Calvaries of Love – 28
(Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems reference numbers added)
The poem is heavily laden with symbolism which may provide an interpretive challenge for us. Some readers may interpret this poem as primarily religious and that her use of symbolism indicates that the entire poem is allegorical. This view is not entirely without merit as there is a tradition of this especially in religious symbolism. By a natural reading I mean that type of reading which understands the work at face value without forcing more upon it than the author intends. All of the symbolisms are common in Christian literature except that we need to qualify them by her 19th century American colloquy. Dickinson’s culture was steeped in religion but this was also an age of religion in transition. She attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary but refused “to be converted to the conventional Christianity of her town” (Magill/Faulkner). Considering her culture, her education, and her own faith, she would be very familiar with these symbols. With a close reading we will seek the poet’s true meaning.
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. She lived her entire life in her parent’s house, with her parents until their deaths, and with her sister. Her brother and his family lived next door. Other significant relationships may possibly be relevant to this poem.
She referred to her significant males as her “preceptors” and Charles Wadsworth was a minister from Philadelphia is considered a dominant figure. After she heard him preach they corresponded for several years but in 1862 he moved to west coast. This parting was evidently significant as she wrote 366 poems in that year (Magill/Faulkner). I cautiously mention this background because we do not need to force her poetry into this history, or the history upon her poetry. This poem is so personal that it just feels autobiographical. Reflecting upon her biography merely helps to satisfy our inevitable curiosity that will arise as we read this poem. I should also note the gender of the person of the poem is not given and could easily be female or male.
Except for a few poems the volume of her work was published after her death. The version of her poem we will be using comes from the later published editions which include her unique trademarks such as capitalization that appears improper, dashes for unapparent reason, and what appear to be unfinished lines. Since her work was published posthumously it is possible that her poems were still in process. This may appear brash of me to presume to understand poetry at this level but I would like to at least consider it.
The voice of this untitled piece is very positive despite the subject of separation or departure. Dickinson seems to be describing a very special day in her life in which everything is perfectly beautiful and on this day she is bidding farewell to someone. The tone of regret or remorse is absent. There is no anger or grief which makes this a fairly unique poem. It speaks volumes about her personal maturity and serenity. It is composed of seven quatrain stanzas with end rhyme in the even numbered lines of each stanza in pattern abcb; except the 4th and 7th stanzas. The feet are all iambic with odd numbered lines tetrameter and the even numbered lines trimester; exceptions in lines 14, 15 and 26, 27, 28.
The first stanza describes a beautiful summer day, specifically at the height of summer near the summer solstice, as mentioned in line 7. In this first line we encounter the first of Dickinson’s odd capitalizations; “Day” and “Summer.” We should probably give her the benefit of the doubt here and acknowledge that she is not ignorant; that she knows that “day” and “summer” are not proper nouns and are not normally capitalized. So then, why are they capitalized? We can only speculate. It seems that in the context this is such a special day that maybe this day should be elevated. We capitalize other holidays so maybe she wants to elevate this special day. She must feel very blessed with this day because she describes it as though it were made just for her in line 2. Sometimes people have experiences that feel so special that it seems that time is somehow a sacred or hallowed moment. Time seems to stop on such days and people feel they have been chosen for a unique experience. Line 3 reinforces this sentiment by declaring that she presumed that special days like this are reserved for special people, “saints.” Line 4 declares without doubt how special the day is; it is a day of “Resurrections”; capital R. If there is a special day in the Christian perspective it is the day of the resurrection. She makes this plural “resurrections” so it may imply that on this day she has experienced some tokens of new life or incredible experiences.
Line 4 ends with a classic Dickinson-ism, a hanging “-be-” which is odd. This completes the end rhyme from line 2 but that does not explain the peculiar dashes. I honestly think that maybe she was planning to return when she found her thesaurus and choose a better word. But maybe not, maybe we should look closely. We must observe the enjambment into the next stanza to catch her word play.
The 2nd stanza is linked by this word play; “The Sun, as common” is a daily resurrection. So the hanging “be” and enjambment are related to the continuing them of resurrection. The Sun seems to be the dominant character of the 2nd stanza and so I speculate that is the reason for the capitalization. Let’s read lines 4 through 8 together as though prose to grasp what her topic is. In line 7 where it refers to “no soul” the solstice passed, I think it is referring to no soul being left out or excluded. So when the sun goes abroad and the wind is blowing the flowers, and these being a metaphor for some kind of resurrections, then everyone and everything is included in this glorious new day. Temporarily reverting or converting to prose may seem like cheating but it is effective here to capture the larger theme. Her meter and end rhyme in this stanza are regular.
In stanza 3 Dickinson describes a sacred moment. Sacred is the only word I know to summarize it. If there is a time so special that even words seem like an intrusion then that is sacred. I read that the Japanese think Americans can never stop talking; that we constantly spew everything on our mind. The Japanese who hold a reverence for silence can sit with a friend for a long time without speaking, and it feels natural. When I see Japanese movies there are long periods of silence that Americans cannot tolerate. I think Dickinson is describing such a special relationship and such a special day as they anticipate parting, that together they were silent.
The word “speech” at the end of line 9 could easily complete the thought of the line, but she uses enjambment which allows us to sustain or pause on that word and then roll into the next line for a new thought. Line 10 may be paraphrased as; “speech is only the symbol of a word, and so wasn’t necessary.” Line 11 elaborates comparing the needlessness of speech to that of a sacrament, which as she says in line 12 is only “the wardrobe – of our Lord.” By using this metaphorical comparison she implies that an outward form is never as valuable as the substance. She seems to be saying that speech may be intrusive to the value of our thoughts like the religious trappings of sacraments are not as precious as her Lord. She again uses the odd capitalization of “Sacrament” and “Wardrobe.” It is unclear why she is elevating these ideas.
The symbols used in the 4th stanza; the Sealed Church and the Supper of the lamb are both common Biblical references. The Church is referred to as the Bride of Christ and they will be united when Christ returns for his Bride, and then they celebrate at the marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7). There is allegorical literature that could give merit to interpreting this entire poem as an allegory of the Church as the Bride of Christ waiting for her union at the Marriage Banquet. Those that see this poem as exclusively religious and her allegory as being about the Church and Christ will diverge from me at this point. I think that we must allow the symbols she uses to remain as symbols, which are the vehicles to enhance our appreciation of a very real and very human relationship. We should permit this to be her primary meaning unless we see real cause for something else.
Stanza 4 speaks of two subjects, “each was to each.” So far the speaker is the only person but line 15 uses 1st person plural, “we.” There is movement from the setting to plot. The concept of the sealed church must be alluding to a virgin bride who keeps herself pure while in wait. So when she uses this metaphor for her relationship in line 13 it probably implies a non-sexual relationship in which they chose to maintain a distance. This interpretation is confirmed in the remained of the stanza; they do not want shame at the Supper of the Lamb.
The end rhyme of lines 14 and 16 is slant. The meter of stanza 4 is irregular. Line 14 has an extra foot and 15 is a foot short. She could easily have moved one foot down to the next line for conformity so we must stop and take a close read. The only apparent reason is to emphasize the word “time,” which then is a thematic refrain back to the 1st stanza.
In the fifth stanza we have repetition of “hours” which are both capitalized. There is assonance in “fast” “as” and alliteration in line 19 of “k” in deck/look/back. And end rhyme in 18 and 20. This stanza is the reason that I chose this poem to review; it is especially beautiful and emotional. The principle of letting go and finding serenity is central to this stanza. The imagery of the futility of clutching time tightly with “greedy hands” portrays something personal and also very universal. Anyone who has been in love has experienced this and felt this way. Two people knowing their time is limited attempt to make the most of each treasured moment, yet it is impossible to condense all that they desire into this space of time.The image of the greedy hands can be more than ametaphor; it can reveal a physical reality as they held hands. In line 19 she chooses the word “Decks” capitalized, which because of the context of movement is likely symbolic of ships, because the deck of a ship is where a passenger would stand. This creates an image of people on two ships headed opposite directions and they are looking back at each other as the ships sail into the distance. This could be a hint that her friend was leaving for another country. Or it may symbolize another type of departure. Using the metaphor of ships creates a sense of fate or that the destinies of the two are controlled by something larger than themselves. This is different than two people just walking away from each other. These two would not choose to separate but there is something that has “bound” them to opposing lands and destinies. Stanza 6: the end rhyme of lines 22 and 24 are slant rhyme, but there is also internal rhyme in lines 22 and 23, “sound” / “bound.” There is no punctuation between these stanzas so they run together fluidly. She continues her thought about clutching the time with her hands saying that the time has now “leaked.” What a great image of trying to grasp something which cannot be grasped. Line 22 offers an echo of the topic of silence from the 3rd stanza. In line 23 she says that they exchanged crucifixes as a bond of their friendship. There is the option of viewing the crucifix as classic symbolism that it represents the suffering and atonement of Christ, and by association it represents the suffering of those that follow Christ. With this approach we would understand Dickinson to be saying that they agree to care for each other in a selfless way. This would reinforce the previous stanza if they feel compelled to opposite directions for life. However, another view would be to understand this as a simple exchange of valued jewelry as friends might do with a friendship ring. It still portrays a beautiful picture of two dear friends parting in silence and exchanging gifts.
Our last stanza contains irregular meter, irregular rhyme, challenging symbolism, and 19th century colloquialisms. “Troth” is a word I have never used. It is related to betrothal or a loyal pledge (Oxford Dictionary). A modern saying within Christendom, (and maybe other religions too) is, “see you on the other side,” when saying final farewells to a friend that you do not expect to see again in this life. I think that Dickinson’s colloquialism is similar. She says in effect, “We said our last farewell with a simple promise, that we shall see each other again when we rise, released from the grave, and meet at that great marriage.” This marriage is a refrain to line 16 the supper of the Lamb because both are the same event. The last 2 lines have irregular meter. If the word “justified” were moved up then all conformity would be restored. But the enjambment allows us to pause on marriage, then view the word justified as a complete phrase on the last line.
The last line ends with the word “love” which does not rhyme with “grave” of line 26. We must ask, what is so important to break the rhyme pattern? It is not phonic rhyme but thematic rhyme. The association of grave with the crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary is very strong in Christian thought. She adds what believers call the gospel, the blessing of being justified (though not worthy) through “Calvaries of Love.” This is a great positive ending because things like shame or doubt are removed and people feel confident in the hope of life after death.
Dickinson’s use of symbolism may be unique but does not override a natural reading of this poem. Coon in metaphorical symbolism the vehicles of nature are used to represent the tenor of abstract spiritual truth such as; “The Lord’s love is deep like the sea.” But in this case spiritual symbols are used as a vehicle to portray the abstractions of love on a real day with real people.
Copyright: Mark Anderson 2014
Dickinson, Emily, and Thomas Herbert. Johnson. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Print.
Magill, Frank N. “Volume 2.” Critical Survey of Poetry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem, 1982. N. pag. Print. Howard Faulkner author of section on Emily Dickinson
Urdang, Laurence. The Oxford Desk Dictionary. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.