I’ve often been asked (well, twice) what my favorite poem in English is. This one, from Emily Dickinson, is my favorite poem today. It was also my favorite yesterday, five years ago, and, I expect, ten years hence.
As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away;
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.
A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone;
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.
And thus, without a wing,
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.
Dickinson was a nearly exact contemporary of Emily Brontë, in whose novel stormy emotions and stormy weather always coincide. In this poem she takes a rather different view. It says, very approximately, that it is an error to believe that the seasons and nature are in sympathy with ourselves (“to seem like perfidy”). In fact nature is not only indifferent to human affairs (“sequestered afternoon”) but utterly alien from them (“the morning foreign shone”). We see it only through the prism of our emotions, which are real but unrelated. The late summer light escapes into the Platonic “beautiful,” a noun, and our perception escapes as well, into memory, where we confute it with summer itself. A friend once told me that Emily Dickinson’s poems reminded him of diary entries. Anyone out there who writes like this in her diary please send it to me immediately.
In the opening two lines Dickinson tosses off an incidental insight about grief to which inferior poets would happily devote an entire poem, as Wordsworth did, to a similar insight about dissolution, in his famous sonnet On Mutability. The description of late summer, given entirely in terms of its effect on the observer, fuses symbol and subject in a way that no physical description could. This poem also employs off-rhyme more effectively than any other I know. The theme, in one sense, is the off-rhyme between the natural world and how we perceive it.
I used to think that in line 14 “a keel” would do just as well and “service of a keel” was chosen to pad out the line. Eventually I realized that “service” stresses the difference between the wing and the keel, the natural and the man-made, which is integral to the theme of the poem. There is a hint of Dickinson’s eccentric spinster grammar in line 12, where she drops an indefinite article, which proves only that no poem is no perfect in God’s eye, or mine.
Trite Dickinson productions like “I’m nobody. Who are you?” find their way into the standard anthologies and this poem never does. Some selections of her own verse manage to omit it. If this doesn’t tell you all you need to know about anthologists, then consult Palgrave, Oscar Williams, Louis Untermeyer, or Quiller-Couch.