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A Day: The Simplicity of Emily Dickinson's Poem

by Karin Steyn

The simplicity of Emily Dickinson's poem A Day is brought to life in images of life's ordinary things. Through the eyes of an inquisitive child, Emily takes the reader on a mental journey from the miracle of sunrise to the mystery of sunset.

She starts the poem with a declaration: I'll tell you how the sun rose. Her knowledge and confidence of this grandiosity is worthy to be shared. Her explanation is defined in the metaphorical image that the sun rises a ribbon at a time. The colourful stratus layers across the sky are portrayed as ribbons. A sense of vanity is connoted, of which the morning sky is entitled, because - honestly - everything in creation deserves some merit or worth.

The morning sky is the colour of amethyst because her next thought tells us that the steeples swam in amethyst. The word 'steeple' is a spiritual word. It suggests physical height and spiritual depth. The idea of the high building 'swimming' against the amethyst background is caught in the concept of movement. The early morning air is alive and moving, giving the impression that the steeples are swaying in the wind.

Once the natural colors of sunrise and the morning wind have been described, the poet impresses upon the reader how quickly nature reacts to these signs. She says that the news of the risen sun like squirrels ran. In effect, nature awakens as quickly as a squirrel runs. (The speed of a squirrel is much debated, but many people will say that they run at an average of approximately 16km per hour). The message this beautiful image conveys is that once the sun rises, everything happens quickly. This in effect symbolizes the frantic pace of the day that we have to contend with, from the moment we wake up.

The rhythm in the first stanza is quick and light. The tone is merry and full of promise. It continues in the second stanza where the hills personified untie their bonnets. As the sun rises and the morning air starts to warm, the mist, which is the metaphorical bonnet, over the hills evaporates. Then the bobolinks begin to sing. The bobolink is a small American songbird. Something that is really special about dawn is the dawn chorus. What else can birds do other than sing when they wake up? And whatever the habitat may be, birds sing to it.

At the end of the second stanza Emily blames the sun for everything that has happened. She says that it is the sun that caused the ribbons in the air, the steeples to swim, the squirrels to run, the hills to untie their bonnets and the birds to sing. The sun miraculously brings the morning to life. It is a message that symbolizes birth; the beginning.

The rhythm then starts to change in her statement: But how he set I know not. The mood is dampened in the mystery of sunset. There seemed a purple stile, which 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.

As the sun sinks toward the horizon, sunlight enters the atmosphere at a lower angle and depending on the concentration of atmospheric particles in the path of the incoming sunlight, the clouds appear yellow, pink and purple. The yellow clouds are the puffy cumulus clouds. These playful clouds remind the poet of children clambering over a stile. The purple stile is a band of stratus cloud lingering almost parallel to the horizon.

So, as the day ends, the children are led away by a dominie. Literally, the dominie could be a cleric or a schoolmaster, who, like a shepherd, takes the flock home to safety. Figuratively, it is night - darkness - that brings an end to day (or life). The color gray symbolizes mourning: the end of a lovely day; death. It also reminds the reader of the fact that the poet does not know how the sun sets. The colour enhances the mystery. Figuratively, people do not know what happens after death. The evening bars represent a sense of security. This gives the reader hope.

The reference of the sun being masculine, like the dominie, magnifies the Creator and gives the stanza a spiritual tone. It is as if the poet wants the reader to meditate on the spiritual meaning of sunset. If dawn is the beginning - birth - surely then sunset is the end - death.

The poem has a very unconventional broken rhyming meter. Her use of metaphors is vivid and spiritual. Emily Dickinson's insight to nature and life was original and profound. Her works are descriptive and show the power of her imagination. This is truly a very beautiful poem that, like so many of her other poems, deals with the themes of life, death and immortality.


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