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0001. Emily Dickinson's "Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine"

Updated on October 22, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

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

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine"

In The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited and returned to Dickinson's idiosyncratic style by Thomas H. Johnson, the first poem sports a whopping 40 lines of 20 riming couplets. It is Dickinson's longest published poem and departs in style greatly from the remaining 1,774.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The poem opens with an invocation to the muses, but then instead of splitting into quatrains, which most of Dickinson's poems do, it sits in one lump chunk on the page. Gone is her Germanic style capitalization of nouns and her liberal sprinkling of dashes; although she does manage to insert a couple of dashes into the final three lines!

Emily's speaker is addressing a young man, exhorting him to select a sweetheart and marry her. The main theme of this poem, then, plays out similar to the Shakespearean "Marriage Sonnets," in which the speaker also is urging a young man to marry. However, instead of the urgent seriousness of the Shakespearean sonnets, Dickinson's poem is a playful Valentine.

According to Richard B. Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson, that young man is Elbridge Bowdoin, who served as a partner in Emily's father's law office. Emily's Valentine poem, sent with the return of a book to Bowdoin, may be seen as flirtatious; however, Bowdoin did not seem to notice or anyway spurned the advice of the poem, remaining a bachelor for life.

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!

Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap'st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There's Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower —
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum —
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

Commentary

First Movement: "Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine"

The ancient epics of Homer and Virgil begin with an invocation to the muse, wherein the speaker asks for guidance as he narrates his tales of adventure. In her Valentine poem, Emily Dickinson has playfully added an invocation to all nine muses to help her with her little drama aimed at the young man for the Valentine season.

Dickinson has her speaker command all nine muses to wake up and sing her a little ditty that she may relay to inflame her Valentine's heart to do as she requests. She then begins by describing how things of the earth all come in pairs. One part of the pair seeks and unites with the other: the damsel is courted by the "hopeless swain" and there is whispering and sighing as a "unity" brings the "twain" together.

Second Movement: "All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air"

After alluding to a human pair, the speaker then narrates her observation that everything on this earth seems to be courting its mate, not only on dry land but also in the "sea, or air." In the next twenty or so lines, she supplies an abundant sampling of things of the earth that pair up. She exaggerates for comedic affect that God has made nothing in the world "single" except for the target of her discourse, who is the young man.

The speaker then tells the young man that the bride and bridegroom pair up and become one. Adam and Eve represent the first pair, and then there is the heavenly united pair, the sun and the moon. And those who follow the precept of coupling live happily, while those who avoid this natural act end up "hanged on fatal tree." Again, she is exaggerating for the fun of it!

The speaker then assures the young man that no one who looks will not find. After all, the earth as she has said, was "made for lovers." She then begins her catalogue of earth things that make up the two part of a unified whole: the bee and flower marry and are celebrated by a "hundred leaves." In two masterful lines, the speaker creates a metaphorical and symbolic wedding of bee and flower:

The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves

The speaker continues the catalogue of earth things that make up a unified pair: the wind and the boughs, the storm and the seashore, the wave and the moon, night and day. She sprinkles in references to the human realm with such lines as, "the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son," "The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride," and "Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true."

With the line regarding the worm wooing the mortal, the speaker, similar to the Shakespearean speaker, is reminding her target that life on this planet does not last forever, and each human physical encasement is subject to death and decay. It is because of this plight that she is urging the young man not to allow his life to speed by without fulfilling his duty as part of a unified couple.

Third Movement: "Now to the application, to the reading of the roll"

Now, the speaker announces what has to happen because of her description of the way life goes "on this terrestrial ball." The single man must be brought to justice. The speaker then remarks bluntly, "Thou art a human solo," along with a melancholy description of unhappiness that being alone can bring. She rhetorically asks if he does not spend many hours and sad minutes of reflecting on this situation.

Of course, she is implying that she knows he does wallow in this sorrowful state, and thus she has the antidote for eliminating all the miserable melancholy. She will turn his melancholic "wailing" back into "song." If only he will follow her sage advice, he will become the happy soul he wishes to be.

Fourth Movement: "There's Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair"

The speaker now names six young damsels—Sarah, Eliza, Emeline, Harriet, and Susan; she refers to the sixth young damsel—herself—without naming her, only that she is "she with curling hair," The speaker opines that any one of these young ladies is fit to become a valuable partner for this solo, sad, single swain.

The speaker commands the young bachelor to choose one and take her home to be his wife. In order to make that demand, she creates a little drama by having the ladies situated up in a tree. She commands the young man to climb the tree boldly but with caution, paying no attention to "space, or time."

The young man then is to select his love and run off to the forest and build her a "bower" and lavish upon her what she wishes, "jewel, or bird, or flower." After a wedding of much music and dancing, he and his bride will flit away in glory as they head home.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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    Linda Sue Grimes 2 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

    Louise, thank you for your comment. Hope all is well with you.

    Do you mean you never heard of that Emily Dickinson poem before? Surely you've heard of Emily Dickinson. That poem does not appear widely. Likely because it was a Valentine note and it does depart drastically from her more mature works. That poem is a bit frivolous and flirtation but it does reveal a very advance skill set that served her well in her writing life. Most of her poems are quite short and a title would not really add much to their achievements.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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    Linda Sue Grimes 2 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

    I think Emily was shy when facing people in person, but when it came to expressing herself in her creative writings, she could be quite extroverted. Also, she was only about 19 when she penned this cheeky piece. It does seem that she was trying to urge Mr. Bowdoin to court her; her father was not pleased with her sending this missive. She likely turned more inward after this blatant rejection and likely the stern upbraiding by her father.

    Thank you for your comment, Natalie!

  • Natalie Frank profile image

    Natalie Frank 2 months ago from Chicago, IL

    Another great article with interesting commentary. Even though the poem us a bit lighthearted compared to her other poems this has always been one of my favorite. Is it believed she?was trying to get that young man to court her ? Whether her or not it seems quite forward for a woman to write such a poem to a man. I always had the impression that Dickinson was shy and introverted but this suggests otherwise. Thanks for another thought provoking article!

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    Louise Powles 2 months ago from Norfolk, England

    I've never heard of Emily Dickinson before, but I love the poem. Strange that she never gave any of her poems titles. Interesting fact.