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Emily Dickinson's "I'll tell you how the Sun rose"

Updated on April 12, 2018
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.

Emily Dickinson

Source

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.

Introduction and Text of Poem, "I'll tell you how the Sun rose"

Emily Dickinson's poem "I'll tell you how the Sun rose—" (#318 in Johnson) consists of sixteen lines, featuring her signature slant rimes and a generous sprinkling of dashes. The poem is written as one piece but divides itself topically into four movements.

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

The first two movements describe how the sun came up on the particular morning of the speaker's choosing, while in the second two movements, the speaker actually dramatizes why she cannot explain how the sun set.

I'll tell you how the Sun rose

I'll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
"That must have been the Sun"!
But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —

Reading of "I'll tell you how the Sun rose--"

Commentary

This poem is dramatizing what the speaker knows about the sunrise but then hazards only a dramatic guess about sunset.

First Movement: Explaining the Unexplainable

I'll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —

The speaker announces that she will be explaining to her listeners, "how the Sun rose." She then through the employment of metaphor likens the sun's rays to ribbons that are released a single ribbon at a time.

The colorful sun ribbons of rays are leisurely released and hover the ocean to a place where the steeples of churches appear to "sw[i]m in Amethyst." The sun's fire then looms upon the blackness, immediately reverting to blue as it takes on a brightness, fully glowing because of the sun. The luminescence of the sun spreads with great haste; thus the speaker compares its speed to the scampering of squirrels, as she calls the event news.

Second Movement: The Ordinary Made Extraordinary

The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
"That must have been the Sun"!

The speaker now asserts that "[t]he Hills untied their Bonnets — / The Bobolinks — begun." Nature is coming alive again while colors may be detected in the faraway hills. Birds have begun their singing.

The speaker's reaction is such that it would make it seem she is seeing this event for the first time. She muses and quotes herself breathlessly, 'That must have been the Sun'!" The speaker had created her drama using ordinary items from her environment which she makes extraordinary in her reporting.

Third Movement: A Forceful Drama

But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —

The speaker then envisions her situation to be nearer to sunrise than to sunset. This idea, of course, is merely fictional, but it offers her the ability to create her drama of how the sun rises. She knows she cannot explain scientifically such an event, but she can forcefully and dramatically imagine it.

So explain sunset, she imagines she can see "a purple stile" with little Chinese children climbing on it. Those children are likely just going home from a day of school or tending sheep.

Fourth Movement: The Cover of Darkness

Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —

The children have climbed to the other side of the stile, an event that signaled the sun's lowest point just as it then vanishes from sight. A shepherd or perhaps even a churchman secures the gate then leads the flock of sheep or perhaps children away from that area.

Because darkness is now hovering thick, the speaker cannot offer any images for what may be happening next. The speaker's lack of knowledge about sunset is reflected in her word choices which are much less certain than her drama about how the sun rises.

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

The volume I use for my commentaries on the poems.
The volume I use for my commentaries on the poems. | Source

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.

Education

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.

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.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the 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 publicans 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.

Emily Dickinson

Source

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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