On Emily Dickinson’s "The Sunset stopped on Cottages…" (950)

A special thanks to Will Turnage for his thoughts – the central insight that unlocked this poem is most certainly his.

“The Sunset stopped on Cottages…” (950)
Emily Dickinson

The Sunset stopped on Cottages
Where Sunset hence must be
For treason not of His, but Life’s,
Gone Westerly, Today –

The Sunset stopped on Cottages
Where Morning just begun –
What difference, after all, Thou mak’st
Thou supercilious Sun?

Comment:

Orange light from a sky robed in purple and pink, complete with a fiery ornament, falls on walls and roofs. And one wonders if the buildings are causing the light to fade, as if the inability to go any further is the decreasing intensity of the light. Sunset “must be” there, after all.

It is the “treason” that puzzles us and pushes our wonder into a communicable realm. Will has correctly pointed out the literal antecedent of “His” must be the Sun, and we should rest satisfied with that until Dickinson’s speaker’s words have been thought through thoroughly.

The Sun certainly sets in the West, but it sounds very much like “Life” went “Westerly, Today.” It is difficult to assess what is going on: perhaps to create our shelter, to turn inward in purposeful ignorance, requires the Sun to travel with us. Perhaps the Sun goes west as Life moves west, initially away from the light.

Will’s emphasis on “Where Morning just begun” solves the puzzle, I think. The first two lines of the first stanza parallel those of the last. “Morning just begun” replaces “Sunset hence must be,” and we need to emphasize the spontaneity of “just begun.” Dickinson’s sensuality literally resides in the ignorance used for action and dwelling. To be at rest means one could know all, if one were the uncaused cause. To be at rest and be human is to build without perfect knowledge.

And yet, there is “Morning” and movement (“just begun”) in those Cottages. This all-too-human realm, a kingdom of darkness in a sense, was built because of, and we feel in spite of, the light. We are free, we are distinct, and I wonder if “supercilious Sun” is a joke. What is Providential is Tonight, because of Today. Our move away from the light, our sheltering ourselves, was only begun in the Light. Our accusing the poor Sun of treason is harmless and ineffectual. We are indeed ruled over by a ruler that knows how to leave well-enough alone.

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