On a curious Dickinson poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
Emily Dickinson (1830-86) rarely did things the simple way. She used rhyme, but just as often used half-rhyme or pararhyme; she almost always wrote in quatrains, but sometimes broke away from these to write longer stanzas; when she writes about snow she does so without ever actually mentioning that that is her subject. In ‘Ah Moon – and Star!’ she writes a love poem, but, as we might expect from Emily Dickinson, she does so in a quite unexpected way.
Ah, Moon—and Star!
You are very far—
But were no one
Farther than you—
Do you think I’d stop
For a Firmament—
Or a Cubit—or so?
I could borrow a Bonnet
Of the Lark—
And a Chamois’ Silver Boot—
And a stirrup of an Antelope—
And be with you—Tonight!
But, Moon, and Star,
Though you’re very far—
There is one—farther than you—
He—is more than a firmament—from Me—
So I can never go!
In this poem, Emily Dickinson does a bit of star-gazing, and concludes that, far away from her though the moon and stars are, they are not as far away as her beloved. Thus a poem that begins a little like a nursery rhyme or lullaby – reminiscent of a child’s classic like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ – ends up striking a wistful and slightly plangent note, as we realise that, far away though the moon and star are, Dickinson feels that the one she loves is farther off still. Or may as well be, since she cannot be with him. ‘Star-cross’d lovers’, indeed.
But which star? It may not be a star at all. The fact that Dickinson pairs the moon with one star in particular suggests that she may have Venus in mind. Poets have referred to that planet, which is visible in the night sky like a large, bright star, as the Evening Star for many centuries. (See Tennyson’s moving poem about Venus as the morning and evening star, for instance.)
The end of the poem is ambiguous, allowing for us to interpret this unspecified beloved as Jesus Christ, making this a religious poem (or, more accurately, a poem about religious doubt) as well as a poem about unrequited or hopeless love.
Continue to explore Dickinson’s poetry with Dickinson’s wonderful snake poem, ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, her ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’., and her poem ‘Because I could not stop for Death’. 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.
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.