A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Summer Shower’

On Dickinson’s wonderful summer poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘A drop fell on the apple tree’ is sometimes known by the title ‘Summer Shower’, although Dickinson (1830-86), famously, didn’t give titles to most of her poems. (It was Dickinson’s original editors, Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, who gave the poem the title by which it has become most familiar.)

A Drop fell on the Apple Tree –
Another – on the Roof –
A Half a Dozen kissed the Eaves –
And made the Gables laugh –

A few went out to help the Brook,
That went to help the Sea –
Myself Conjectured were they Pearls –
What Necklaces could be –

The Dust replaced, in Hoisted Roads –
The Birds jocoser sung –
The Sunshine threw his Hat away –
The Bushes – spangles hung –

The Breezes brought dejected Lutes –
And bathed them in the Glee –
The Orient put out a single Flag,
And signed the Fete away –

‘Summer Shower’ is a wonderfully evocative poem describing the coming of rain to the dry summer land, with some arresting and unusual metaphors for the raindrops – as you’d expect from an Emily Dickinson poem.

Dickinson had an uncanny talent for picking up on the local details in a particular scene – those often overlooked by other people, although when they’re shown to us, we all immediately recognise them. Witness, for instance, her wonderful description of how snow renders the familiar landscape strange to us, or this evocation of a cat hunting a bird.

Here, Dickinson begins ‘Summer Shower’ by picking up on the way we realise that it’s raining in the summer only gradually: we see one drop, then another, and the realisation slowly dawns on us that, although the sky may be blue and the sun may be out, there is definitely rain falling, no doubt about that.

It’s a bit like the poetic equivalent of what Joseph Conrad achieves in some of his best fiction: the technique that the critic Ian Watt named ‘delayed decoding’, since we have to spend a short while feeling confused before the full realisation comes to us.

A few went out to help the Brook,
That went to help the Sea –
Myself Conjectured were they Pearls –
What Necklaces could be –

This personification of the summer shower may border on the twee, but what saves it from sentimentality is the fact that we often use such language in everyday speech when describing the ecosystem and the cycles inherent in the natural world: the rain really does ‘help’ the brook by allowing evaporated water to fall back into it and rejoin the rivers and streams, just as those rivers and streams flow into the sea to ‘help’ maintain that part of the Earth’s water system.

The subjunctive in the third and fourth lines, which see the poet speculating on what wonderful pearls the raindrops make, liken the water droplets to something traditionally valued for its beauty, but also reinforce the intrinsic link between freshwater and seawater made in the first two lines, since pearls come from (sea-dwelling) oysters.

In the last analysis, ‘Summer Shower’ is another fine example of Emily Dickinson’s distinctive way of viewing the world – of taking the familiar and throwing it back to us anew.

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’.

Discover more of Dickinson’s poetry with ‘Because I could not stop for Death‘, ‘My Life had stood – a loaded Gun‘, ‘This World is not Conclusion‘, and ‘My Life closed twice before its Close‘. We’d also recommend her wonderful 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.