Sometimes, you can’t get a poem out of your head: On Dickinson’s "These Are The Days When Birds Come Back"

These are the days when Birds come back
Emily Dickinson

These are the days when Birds come back –
A very few — a Bird or two –
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old — old sophistries of June –
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee –
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear –
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze –
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake –
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

Commentary:

The birds that come back cheat us. We think it will all be the same again, forgetting that what we’re seeing is a manifestation of another’s nostalgia at best, at worst, our own nostalgia. Those “blue and gold” mistakes are the same as the birds; from the third stanza, we know it is our mind at work, looking for any little hint that all will be the same again, that is making us confused about when the beginnings of summer are.

At this point, I want to distinguish between mind, body and soul. If you’ve read the Republic, you know there is a rational element in the soul, and an appetitive element. But how does the soul move, torn between the two? If one side gains a greater “force” than the other, how do we account for that force?

Socrates introduces the element of spiritedness, or willfulness, and it seems artificial. It is most clear in the virtue of courage, but is courage dispassionate, independent of the appetites? In one sense, no, for the movement of the Republic is showing that a class of purely spirited individuals – the guardian class – will collapse into the appetitive (the love of one’s own that undoes the Children’s Creche, the most primal and foundational and critical form of eros). The argument of the Republic seems to be that the spirited element needs to be tied to the rational and respectful of appetitive, in order that tyranny be curbed. Whether there is a spirited element is an open question, even; it does seem to stand for pure will, the fact that we make a choice between what we perceive as rational and our desires. (Contrast this with the Phaedrus, where spiritedness is a “higher passion,” higher than erotic desires, that allows reason to govern those lower passions. You can see some of this in the Republic, in the inevitable turn to religion. Religion uses Glaucon’s spiritedness to keep away the deletrious effects of the appetitive.)

With a mind, body, soul distinction, then, all of a sudden Dickinson’s poem becomes really complicated. The mind is being fooled in longing for sensuality, and it is the “bee” which, in its persistent but thoughtless labors, that can see through the false signs of the seasons. If the rational were to take its intellectual labors seriously, perhaps the speaker could see the seasons rightly.

But it gets even more complicated than that, for as I have noted before, there is a pagan/Christian divide in the poem. One half of it hearkens to a falsely optimistic paganism, the other half to an almost tragic Christianity. The stanza that seems to facilitate that movement is here:

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear –
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Our speaker believes the fraud, ignoring the bee’s “wisdom,” until she sees a leaf floating through the air. The question is that of where the seeds are. Faith like a mustard seed hasn’t been planted in the ground yet; it is just floating about. The speaker’s hopes for what was are based on incidents, not trust or commitment or character. Our speaker sees himself in that leaf – that word “timid” is what is characteristic of the intellect, I think, as opposed to the bee, which is more spirited (a spirited many is not consonant with the Republic. But it certainly makes sense in Homer). The word “altered” is the poem’s midpoint, it evokes “altar” not terribly subtly. That word “ranks” implies that all the seeds for springtime are there, and implies a hierarachy, but a hierarchy that witness had to be borne to. Our speaker gets the intellect back, but because of an association made almost on faith. Seeing yourself in a leaf is a God’s eye perspective, as it pushes you to see your lifespan in the context of what is, what is being something very large and almost indifferent to one.

Our speaker’s conversion is that of embracing mystery, and going to a childishness in order to have a love from within, as opposed to depending on the love of another. That’s the significance of the communion imagery, I think: but has the intellect completely receded in the face of spiritedness made manifest?

Well, the last words are “immortal wine,” and if one remembers the Symposium or the Laws, wine isn’t merely a tool of the erotic. It creates the sociability, or perhaps in this speaker’s case, the lack of worry, which allows the intellect to rise again, above petty details.

7 Thoughts.

  1. i get By with A little help From my friends. i get high With a little Help from my friends.

    P.s. Burgo, Spanish

  2. A very commendable depth of analysis here Ashok!

    I would personally argue that some of Dickinson’s religious imagery can be read just as that — religious imagery — but with the rather strong disclaimer inserted that textual analysis is not really my speciality.

  3. Very nice poem no need to say further things because everything is mentioned already withing summary. I used to read such poem in sunday school when I was a teenager. Every poem has a hidden meaning. Poem gives us pleasure in mind and heart. Poem is a kind of art decorated or embedded with words and literature.

  4. This is really awful. You’re an embarassment to Dickinson and poetry everywhere. These are the days – refers to Indian Summer, or a summer-like day in fall, NOT spring. That’s why communion is referred to – comes at the END of the religious service. Leaves falling, plants going to seed. She is almost convinced that it is actually summerr herself, even though she knows better. Try to et a clue from ACTUALLY READING the poem before you try to stroke yourself with non-related works of antiquity in comparison.

  5. I like your way of approaching the poem. It is really one way that I followed in my mid-exam this semester. My friends would wonder what to write and how to answer the questions, and I would say to them: “consult Plato and the guys”, i.e., Aristotle and Socrates, as the (professor), ironically enough, would be really somehow intimidated and shocked with what is going on in the paper at hand. I got 21 out of 25! For sure, the higest mark is always 22 out of 25, and no one but the most beautiful and (sorry for the term) sexy girl would get 22 in the courses that same professor teaches!

  6. This “love within” vs “love for another” binary doesn’t sit well with me. Neither does your isolating focus on such figures as the bee and the leaf. Is it not significant that this poem is written in tercets? From whence (besides Dante) can one concetualize the emergence of the Dickinson Tercet? And how does the tercet actually work? Three lines working in harmony, but one has to come first, receiving help from the others such that it may in turn help them (one, naturally, before the other)…

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