Aug 272003

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
Sequestered afternoon.

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.

(Update: Carl G. Jung points to an aspect of the poem that I overlooked. George Wallace comments. The Russian Dilettante comments.)

  17 Responses to “Imperceptibly”

  1. interesting that you mention Dickinson…
    the phrase "we two are one. we brethren are, he said" has been rocking through my mind today. it seemed apropos to someone’s post somewhere but i couldn’t remember the poet much less the poem…was it Dickinson? or who? if anyone.

  2. Yes. It’s from "I died for beauty". Slightly misquoted.

  3. Aaron,

    I have almost always found poetry much too dense. I am too used to skipping gently over the words on the page to take pleasure in stopping, and really looking at them. However, your poetry posts make so much sense and are so well written that I enjoy them immensely.

    Thank you.

  4. Dickinson has never been a favorite of mine, but your explication of this poem certainly argues for it being ranked more highly in my estimation.

    I’d be more impressed by the formal value of off rhyme in this one, though, if it weren’t her norm. I’d rate it a happy coincidence more than a strategic choice. That said, it certainly works.

    It is amazing how much better the really good poems get when we do inspect them closely. The more we put into them, the more we get out.

  5. thanks

  6. 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."



  7. Yes, it’s nearly all off rhyme, but remember that the Queen would pronounce "shone" as if it rhymed with yawn, so–maybe–there’s one true rhyme. What a brilliant gem!!

  8. It’s a masterpiece indeed. One doesn’t even have to understand it fully to feel its spell. Too bad it’s not in the anthologies, and going through a complete set of ED’s poems, one risks overlooking it.

    It’s not quite out of rhyme, though, rather, it’s based on pararhymes or consonant rhymes: begun–afternoon, keel–beautiful (if there is at least a secondary stress on the last syllable), and perhaps shone–gone, which depends on how New Englanders pronounced "shone" at that time. In BE, it should rhyme with "yon", not "yawn". Away–perfidy is a bit hard to classify, but if Blake could rhyme eye–symmetry, I suppose it should count as a rhyme too.

    ED was only 12 years younger than Emily Bront, but she seems a century ahead by versification technique. It’s interesting that two major 19th-century English-language poets, unknown until (well) after their death — Dickinson and GM Hopkins — were more innovative in style and technique than most of those who got published then.

    One might also wonder why America’s greatest female poet was a spinster, its (highly arguably, of course) greatest female writer didn’t have much of a sex life, either, and the female figure in America’s best-known painting is for some reason supposed to be an old maiden as well. :-))

  9. Since "off rhyme" covers pararhyme, part of my comment above must be redundant. Still, I believe the use of certain types of off rhyme is in no way a drawback since there is a terrible dearth of proper rhymes in English, most of which are trivial.

  10. I know Mutability was a popular topic among the British Romantics (the original Fab 5?). But I think the sonnet you’re referring to was by Shelley, not Wordsworth.

    If it ends with "Naught may endure but Mutability!", it’s by Shelley. I think that line pretty well describes my Internet connection, at any rate.

  11. Oops — didn’t follow the link. All apologies. Still prefer the Shelley, but Wordsworth an "inferior" poet? C’mon, give the guy a break — he wrote "Lines … Tintern Abbey", after all.

  12. Inferior to Dickinson, is what I meant, about which there can be little doubt. As for the two mutability poems, Wordsworth’s contains the lines:

    Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
    Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

    which are among the best of Wordsworth and better than anything in Shelley. The rest of the poem is a waste.

    In all but a few lines Wordsworth was a ponderous self-important bore. I will discuss him at length sometime, including Tintern Abbey, which I can’t abide; for now you’ve given me an excuse to quote the Hartley Coleridge parody:

    He dwelt among the untrodden ways
    To Rydal Lake that lead;
    A bard whom there were none to praise
    And very few to read.

  13. I like Shelley, too. I didn’t like him at all when I was 25; I love his poetry today. Ditto Wordsworth, but for very different reasons. Go fig.

  14. So how did Blake think either "eye" or "symmetry" would be pronounced? Maybe they did rhyme.

  15. Wow, I wish I could hand something as unremarkable as that to my tutors, and have them say how marvellously I’d done…

  16. I thought it was an absolutely brilliant poem. Dickinson is one of my top favorite poets next to Poe.

  17. Nice poem. I agree, nature does not give a slightest care to our plight. Nature does what it wants and we are at its mercy.

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