When Night is almost done –

First line: “When Night is almost done –”
Author: Emily Dickinson
Poem #: 347 (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)

When Night is almost done –
And Sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the Spaces –
It’s time to smooth the Hair –

And get the Dimples ready –
And wonder we could care
For that old – faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –

An earlier incarnation of myself, writing on another blog, attempted somewhat disastrously to scan this poem. I do not begrudge the youthful error, but nonetheless I want to correct it, for it distracted from what was otherwise an accurate reading of the poem.

My post on Dickinson from a few days ago (here) explored some of the ways that Dickinson was able to create layers of meaning by playing with the rhythm of her poem, all without the use of metrical substitutions. In this poem, she once again avoids metrical substitutions. Each line is perfect iambic trimeter, though lines three, five, and seven all have feminine endings. For the most part, Dickinson does not attempt to subvert the steady rhythm this creates. Only the final two lines are broken in the middle, and in the last line the dash merely adds a brief pause without really altering the stress pattern. Only in line seven does Dickinson create the feel of a stress where there is none. In that line, the adjective ‘old’, which would normally take a stress, is demoted, given the context, to being unstressed. The pause created by the dash, however, allows it to recover some of its lost weight, and thus the line becomes very heavy in the middle.

Mostly, however, the rhythm is left alone, and this is important for the success of the poem. Consider first a surface reading: the night is almost done, the sun is coming, we get ready for the day, and we scoff at the midnight whose power to frighten lasted “but an Hour.” On this reading, the poem is optimistic, even – if one inclines to a darker view of life – complacent. I suggest, however, that beneath this surface there is true apprehension of the awful Night, and that this undercurrent reframes the surface reading of the poem as, not naïve optimism, but rather an attempt to laugh off the Night, an attempt that can never prove wholly successful.

The way that Dickinson does this is to allow the Night and the fright it occasions to envelop the remainder of the poem:

When Night is almost done –
That frightened – but an Hour –

These might have been the first two lines of the poem: they parse well enough together. But instead they are the first and last lines. All the sunlight, the preparation for the day, the scoffing of the night – all this takes place between this sundered description of the Night. If the beginning of the poem marks the dawn, this merely invites to read the end as twilight, and to recognize that the day, too, lasts “but an Hour.”

A number of structural features enhance this sense. A simple glance at the poem reveals that it consists in two stanzas, each of four lines. The first brings the sunrise, the second shows the sunrise banishing the night. Dickinson, however, subverts this visual break. First, within each stanza there is only imperfect rhyme (near/hair; care/hour). Across the stanzas, however, there is a perfect rhyme (hair/care), which ties the internal lines of the poem strongly together and minimizes the genuine “breakage” created by the page’s empty space. Second, enhancing this, there is really no break content-wise: the stanza break somewhat inexplicably intervenes between hair-smoothing and dimple-readying, even though these are two aspects of the same activity. The stanza break thus roughly correlates with the surface reading of the poem, but it comes across as superficial. The unity of the internal six lines of the poem, though hidden, proves more substantial, thus bringing to light the deeper structure of the poem, with its nocturnal bookends.

In this way, the poem achieves economically and deliberately an effect that characterizes – I think accidentally – many of Emerson’s essays. Emerson’s essays frequently end with a burst of unbridled optimism, expressed so fervently that Emerson has for a long time been mistaken as a thoroughly optimistic thinker. Close reading, however, reveals that these endings nearly always follow upon Emerson’s having plumped the depths of an intractable skepticism or nihilism: his optimism then functions as a turning away, but certainly not as a rejoinder. This same need to turn away is masterfully considered by Dickinson in these eight short lines, and is revealed for what it is.


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