By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was one of the most distinctive poets of the nineteenth century. Of her contemporaries writing across the Atlantic at the same time as her, only Gerard Manley Hopkins, of the Victorian poets, comes close to matching her uniqueness and sharp eye for detail.
Before the imagists, under Ezra Pound’s leadership, began to ‘make it new’, Emily Dickinson was forging exciting new and fresh metaphors to describe the world around her. ‘The Moon was but a Chin of Gold’ is a fine example of her idiosyncratic style.
The Moon was but a Chin of Gold
A Night or two ago—
And now she turns Her perfect Face
Upon the World below—
Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde—
Her Cheek—a Beryl hewn—
Her Eye unto the Summer Dew
The likest I have known—
Her Lips of Amber never part—
But what must be the smile
Upon Her Friend she could confer
Were such Her Silver Will—
And what a privilege to be
But the remotest Star—
For Certainty She take Her Way
Beside Your Palace Door—
Her Bonnet is the Firmament—
The Universe—Her Shoe—
The Stars—the Trinkets at Her Belt—
Her Dimities—of Blue—
Emily Dickinson was never going to write a conventional poem about the moon (or about anything), and the images she uses to describe the moon in this poem are striking and idiosyncratic: a ‘chin of gold’, for starters, but then who else but Dickinson would describe the universe as ‘Her Shoe’?
The moon grows from a slender crescent (‘Chin of Gold’, an image up there with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s image of the crescent moon as a ‘fingernail’) to a full ‘face’, taking us back to the idea of the ‘Man in the Moon’ from medieval legend and literature.
But the idea of the face slowing emerging from the darkness, with first a chin and then the forehead and lips like a face coming into view, is a new take on an old trope – and Dickinson’s use of ‘gold’ and ‘amber’ (hinting at the residual sunlight that provides the moon with its light, perhaps?) make the moon seem precious and rare like those commodities.
Indeed, the moon seems as rare and beautiful as the sun, which is the thing more usually described as golden.
‘The Moon was but a Chin of Gold’ is a fine example of Emily Dickinson’s distinctive style and her unusual way of describing familiar things. If you enjoyed ‘The Moon was but a Chin of Gold’ you can discover more of her poems here.
Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems is well worth getting hold of in the beautiful (and rather thick) single volume edition by Faber. 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‘.