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Emily Dickinson's "The morns are meeker than they were" / "Sleep is supposed to be"

Updated on October 10, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson


Please note: Emily Dickinson's Short Poems

Emily Dickinson famously added almost two thousand poems to the American literary canon. However, many are her poems are quite brief, for example, "The morns are meeker than they were" features only eight lines and offers a relatively simple theme that requires no in-depth commentary.

Therefore, I have chosen to comment on "The morns are meeker than they were" (#12) along with its following poem from Johnson's The Complete Poems, "Sleep is supposed to be" (#13.) Not only are both poems fairly short, but they also offer a useful and interesting contrast with each other. "The morns are meeker than they were" plays out in a simple riddle, while "Sleep is supposed to be" strives to correct a traditional notion about sleep and morning.

Introduction and Text of "The morns are meeker than they were"

Emily Dickinson's "The morns are meeker than they were" makes a rather simple observation about the natural features surrounding the speaker. She has noticed a change in how morning is behaving.

The speaker then focuses on what the tress are doing and eventually offers a special comment about the "field," before finally confessing how all these changes will affect the behavior of the speaker.

This poem qualifies as one of Dickinson's riddles. She describes the subject without ever naming it, leaving the answer to the riddle up to her readers/listeners.

The morns are meeker than they were —

The morns are meeker than they were —
The nuts are getting brown —
The berry's cheek is plumper —
The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf —
The field a scarlet gown —
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

Reading of "The morns are meeker than they were"

Commentary on "The morns are meeker than they were"

Mornings change with the season.

First Stanza: The Rose Has Flown

The morns are meeker than they were —
The nuts are getting brown —
The berry's cheek is plumper —
The Rose is out of town.

The speaker observes that mornings have become more sedate and quiet than they had been. At this point, readers/listeners have no idea why the behavior of morning should have become "meeker."

The second line, however, begins to open up the answer to riddle, as she begins to drop hints about her subject. She describes the browning of the nuts, and the plumping of the "cheek" of the berry, and by the final line, which reports that the roses have gone away, no longer decorating the summer day, the reader can be sure that the speaker is describing the onset of the autumn season, a season Dickinson loved and found unusually inspiring for her poetic musings.

Second Stanza: A Trinket for the New Fashion

The Maple wears a gayer scarf —
The field a scarlet gown —
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

The speaker now offers further clues about her subject. Maple trees are now decked out in leaves that look more varied and that seem more merry than the simple summer green they had hitherto adorned. Even the meadow now dons a colorful dress. Replacing its summer green attire is a bold "scarlet gown."

After reporting on all the changes the speaker has observed in the behavior of morning, the coloring of the nuts, the fattening of the berries, the absence of the roses, the maple leaves turning all colorful, and the meadow sporting a bright red dress, the speaker now announces that she will begin wearing some "trinket," in order to keep up with all the modern day apparel. She does not want to be caught dressed for summer and appear "old fashioned" among the newly minted, colorful styles being sported by the beings that constitute her "society" of creatures during this new and exciting season.

Introduction and Text of "Sleep is supposed to be"

While the speaker in "The morns are meeker than they were" offers a playful riddle in order to elaborate on the beauty of the fall season, the speaker of "Sleep is supposed to be" has a very different purpose; this speaker disputes the common conception of "sleep" and "morning."

The speaker then offers the common notion about what sleep and morning are understood to be and contrasts it with a different level of awakening. She is referring to the spiritual awakening, when the soul and the Oversoul become one. Dickinson often describes those states of awareness that transcend the physical level of existence.

Sleep is supposed to be

Sleep is supposed to be
By souls of sanity
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which, on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be
By people of degree
The breaking of the day.

Morning has not occurred!

That shall Aurora be —
East of Eternity —
One with the banner gay —
One in the red array —
That is the break of Day.

Aaron Copland's musical rendition of "Sleep is supposed to be"

Commentary on "Sleep is supposed to be"

The speaker offers enlightenment on a burning issue.

First Stanza: How "Sleep" Is Normally Thought Of

Sleep is supposed to be
By souls of sanity
The shutting of the eye.

The speaker begins by stating that normally folks think of sleep as the act when people shut their eyes. Those normal people are just everyday folk who go about their day waking, eating, working, playing, procreating, and of course shutting their eyes to sleep, before the next day finds them doing those ordinary things again. Those are the "sane" souls because they all agree on the common definition of "sleep." For them there is no other definition of "sleep"; thus the speaker must now enlighten them.

Second Stanza: Sleep May Open Up a Mystic Paradise

Sleep is the station grand
Down which, on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

After asserting that the normal, sane folks of the world have defined "sleep" a certain way, the speaker must now insert a new definition into the lexicon of society's manners and language. Instead of being merely a "shutting of the eye," this speaker has discovered that sleep also allows a new world to emerge, one that is "grand."

This world is a mystic paradise, where the angels appear everywhere. They appear as "hosts" who give witness that this seemingly unusual realm exists. The speaker has thus elevated the common activity in which all creatures worldwide engage to a metaphysical activity that she can be sure very few have experienced.

The speaker therefore likely knows that what she is reporting will be understood by very few folks, but by dramatizing it in a poem she may reach some on some intuitive level. And even if they think she is merely describing dreams, well, that is better then continuing to devalue sleep as merely "shutting of the eye."

Third Stanza: What Smart Folk Contend Morning To Be

Morn is supposed to be
By people of degree
The breaking of the day.

The speaker now moves on to the second term which she is urged to redefine for humanity—"Morn" or morning. As with "sleep," she tells her readers/listeners what people who deem themselves knowledgeable consider "morn" to be. Those illustrious but limited folks consider morning to be merely a time when day begins, that time between the "shutting of the eye" and the "breaking of the day ."

Fourth Stanza: Generally, No Morning Has Yet Been Experienced by Most Folks

Morning has not occurred!

The speaker then startles her readers/listeners by boldly asserting with emphasis, placing her announcement in one line, in order to draw maximum attention to its content. This speaker insists that, in fact, there has been no "Morning" yet. Despite the thinking of those smart people that morning is simply a time when day breaks, she courageously declares that "Morning has not occurred!"

Such a startling statement throws open all the windows of the mind. What could the speaker be thinking? After all morning occurs every morning, does it not?

Fourth Stanza: A Glorious Event Awaits the True Breaking of the Day

That shall Aurora be —
East of Eternity —
One with the banner gay —
One in the red array —
That is the break of Day.

The speaker then describes what a true "Morning" is. A true morning is the time when the soul greets his Maker. A great light appears that spreads from the forehead ("East") out into that Heaven beyond the physical cosmos. That union of soul and Oversoul is a time that is marked by a brilliant flag, marked by spreading of the brightest light beyond all physical light and sight.

The speaker then concludes: "That is the break of Day." (Or "That is the break of Day.") She emphasizes her description by emphasizing the word, "That." (Modern-day type-script uses italics; Dickinson, of course, underlined the word.)

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Emily Dickinson at 17


Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.


Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.


Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publications of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 months ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Brenda, for the kind words.

    Yes, Dickinson's work is most relishable. Her poetry reveals a keen mind and clear-eyed observer. She became a master at minimalism, making every word count. That she didn't title most of her poems shows a confidence that each poem could speak without introduction. Her attitude toward life and death always remained her most important asset; she did not judge with a jaundiced eye but kept her mind laser-focused on the truth that each creature or event of nature afforded her. As she created her world, she opened the world for each reader or listener, who is fortunate enough to encounter her. We are all blessed that Emily Dickinson lived and wrote.

  • Brenda Arledge profile image


    4 months ago from Washington Court House

    I have always liked Emily Dickinson.

    You did a great job explaining her work.

    Wonderful write.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Yes, Dickinson is one of the most fascinating poets of all time. She had a mystical ability and employed it amazingly well to create her 1775 poems and likely as many letters. That she lived such a quiet and meditative life intrigues her audience. She had a keen eye for detail and engaged her marvelous talent in creating her little dramas featuring all she saw and experienced. Her poems about the seasons are exquisite, deep, and beautiful, while and her riddles provide great fun!

    Thank you, Louise, for your response. Always appreciate your input. Have a blessed day!

  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 

    2 years ago from Norfolk, England

    I didn't know she never provided titles for any of her poems. How interesting. She was a very talented poet though.


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