Dirty thoughts: On Dickinson’s “A Moth the hue of this” (841)

“A Moth the hue of this…” (841)
Emily Dickinson

A Moth the hue of this
Haunts Candles in Brazil.
Nature’s Experience would make
Our Reddest Second pale.

Nature is fond, I sometimes think,
Of Trinkets, as a Girl.


At least two other poems by Dickinson featuring the word “Brazil” are about female sexuality: I’m thinking of 621 (“I asked no other thing…”) and especially 541 (“Some such Butterfly be seen…”). I’m not quite sure how many other “Brazil” poems there are, I know there’s 571 which I haven’t read yet. Any help getting a list of them would be most appreciated.

This poem is a bit strange because to immediately read it as sexual is very, very crude. If you can’t figure out what I’m talking about, good for you. By “crude” I mean this: it doesn’t even make any sense. Sure, sex and death are linked, and you can link them through the image of blood rushing within, and blood rushing out. But that’s just fatuous ultimately. Of course sex and death are linked, duh. What we want to know is what the linkage means, and that’s where the poem gets tricky: “Nature’s Experience” is much more intense than ours, and “Nature” is fond of “Trinkets.” “Nature’s Experience” is where reading this poem as about sex breaks down completely: sexual activity should be the most natural, and our experience shouldn’t merely mirror it.

Dickinson is fond of grotesque imagery: I have no doubt she wanted us to think “eww gross” or “whoa. You’ve got a dirty mind. What’s your number?” My suspicion is she wanted to jar us so we refocus on that last word, “Girl.” The beginnings or pains of sexual development are the real issue: our “Reddest Second” is probably blushing when we’re most embarrassed, and we can imagine a girl both shy and hopeful towards a lover.

So what is the “Reddest First?” Whatever it is, it stems from “Nature’s Experience,” and that is somehow linked to a moth of a certain hue haunting candles in Brazil. “Brazil” contrasts with “pale” sharply: our most embarrassed look, our shame, is not even in the same realm “Nature’s Experience” occurs. Our notion of love isn’t as natural as we think: it is based on many conventions, and a girl can be embarrassed towards a lover well before feeling at a sexual level any real desire for a lover.

“Brazil” is where that notion may be an impossibility: it is hot, it is exotic. Love should blossom naturally here, there should be no shame, and the “Reddest First,” perhaps death, should be an afterthought. And yet, we can imagine now the Moth having the Reddest of all colors, flagrantly wearing the color that marks sex and death, supposedly going beyond all the limitations both imply. And that Moth is as a ghost to Candles.

It can never reach the light fully, or else it is burned. This is perhaps how wisdom is erotic: the love of knowledge means acknowledging one never knows completely. It is possible for all human experience to be subordinate to that most fundamental incompleteness: even given a complete lack of shame, the most natural experience is the most intense because of an unresolvable tension. Shame/blood still resides: as it haunts, ironically enough, “Brazil” points to the reality of the “pale” – not the pure – where blood has only temporarily been drained.

The trinket is the moth, but it is Nature’s trinket, not ours. “I sometimes think” tells us that our speaker can stand apart from Nature at times – I think one way to talk about Rousseau’s insight is to say that “man is the animal that by nature creates conventions.” Another relation between our desire, shame, and knowledge can be declared. After all, “Nature’s experience would make” tells us that Nature didn’t really experience anything. A Moth flew around a candle. We imagined this, we imagined the soul attempting to apprehend light, and it was our experience truly.


  1. Perhaps Emily is stunned by the natural intensity of the red moth. Our closest imitation of the color (“our reddest second”) does not even come close. It’s dazzling color reminds her of the trinkets that catch our eyes…

    or perhaps she was lonely and sex-crazed…

  2. There are four “Brazil poems” by Emily Dickinson. The other one is “My first well day – since many ill”

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