A reading of a Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Many of Emily Dickinson’s greatest poems begin as if responding to an unheard question or request. ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ is one such poem, and ‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’ is another. In this post, we offer some notes towards an analysis of this captivating poem.
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
Which 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 –
We might divide ‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’ into two halves: an eight-line section describing the sunrise, and an eight-line section, introduced by the turn on that word, ‘But’, describing the speaker’s lack of knowledge of the sunset.
‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’: summary
In summary, the poem begins with Dickinson’s speaker describing the rising sun as a series of ribbons in the sky, with the sunlight bathing the tops of the churches in a deep violet colour like amethyst. The ‘news’ that the sun has risen (a nice touch, not just because each day is literally a new day, but because people get the daily newspapers in the morning) spreads quickly ‘like Squirrels’ running, and the hills seem to be removing their bonnets in glorious abandon. The ‘Bobolinks’ (a species of American blackbird) begin their morning song, and the speaker attributes this to the rising of the sun.
But contrasting with this joyous picture of the sunrise we have something more subdued when we come to Dickinson’s description of the sunset. From the soft violet colour of the ‘Amethyst’ sunrise, we move to a darker ‘purple stile’, denoting a boundary – perhaps, here, suggesting the horizon, that boundary between land and sky.
The yellow children, bathed in the fading glow of the sun, are climbing this stile, only to be met on the other side by a clergyman or ‘Dominie’ clothed in drab grey (the grey suggesting dusk but also, perhaps, clouds).
He leads the ‘flock’ of children away, putting up the ‘evening Bars’ for the night. (‘Bars’ is another nice touch, suggesting the rays of sunlight but also the bars of a fire and, of course, the bars of a prison or school window, denoting enclosure.)
‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’: analysis
‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’ invites a deeper reading than this quite literal summary allows, of course: as in many of Emily Dickinson’s poems, we can analyse the religious symbols of the ‘Steeples’ and the ‘Dominie’ as pointing to an underlying Christian meaning for the poem.
The image of the pastor leading his ‘flock’ away – a clever word which simultaneously conjures up the ‘pastoral’ world of shepherds and sheep, and, by association, the fleecy clouds in the evening sky – implies a loss of innocence, as if children, having climbed the ‘stile’, must now grow up into a life of conformity with boundaries clearly marked by ‘Bars’ and demarcations of various sorts. The ‘Ribbon’ image from the first half of the poem has given way to the more regimented shape of the straight metal ‘Bars’.
‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’ invites other readings, of course, and this is just one way of analysing its language and imagery. What do you think of this Emily Dickinson poem?
About Emily Dickinson
Perhaps no other poet has attained such a high reputation after their death that was unknown to them during their lifetime. Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson lived her whole life within the few miles around her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. She never married, despite several romantic correspondences, and was better-known as a gardener than as a poet while she was alive.
Nevertheless, it’s not quite true (as it’s sometimes alleged) that none of Dickinson’s poems was published during her own lifetime. A handful – fewer than a dozen of some 1,800 poems she wrote in total – appeared in an 1864 anthology, Drum Beat, published to raise money for Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War. But it was four years after her death, in 1890, that a book of her poetry would appear before the American public for the first time and her posthumous career would begin to take off.
Dickinson collected around eight hundred of her poems into little manuscript books which she lovingly put together without telling anyone. Her poetry is instantly recognisable for her idiosyncratic use of dashes in place of other forms of punctuation. She frequently uses the four-line stanza (or quatrain), and, unusually for a nineteenth-century poet, utilises pararhyme or half-rhyme as often as full rhyme. The epitaph on Emily Dickinson’s gravestone, composed by the poet herself, features just two words: ‘called back’.
If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. Discover more about Dickinson’s classic poems with ‘I died for Beauty, but was scarce‘, ‘One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted‘, and ‘I cannot live with You‘.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.