Emily Dickinson, “Fairer through Fading – as the Day” (938)

Fairer through Fading – as the Day (938)
Emily Dickinson

Fairer through Fading – as the Day
Into the Darkness dips away –
Half Her Complexion of the Sun –
Hindering – Haunting – Perishing –

Rallies Her Glow, like a dying Friend –
Teasing with glittering Amend –
Only to aggravate the Dark
Through an expiring – perfect – look –


“Fairer through Fading:” one can speak of the being of the beautiful, but it is more proper to situate “the beautiful” within becoming. “As,” coupled with “Her,” opens the question of what exactly is fairer through fading. Beauty itself is one idea, but “Day” is a product of at least the Sun and the unmentioned Earth (“Half Her Complexion of the Sun”). Moreover, “Day” and “Fairer” seem to be personified (“dips,” “Complexion”). Are we talking about Beauty, Earth (Gaia), or a woman?

The first stanza refuses to reduce itself to something simpler. Day does not strictly dip into Darkness: from our perspective, the Sun does that. The Sun is mentioned explicitly. Is there a part that represents the whole such that it is no less than the whole? I don’t know one can resolve this by saying “the Sun is,” and the other Half “is not.” Light shines on things. Whose “Complexion” half of the Sun is an open question. We assume “Day,” but “as” should give us pause. “Fairer” is not dependent on what does not exist necessarily, but on what we do not see. In terms of our apprehension of beauty, is it so critical beauty is perishable, or that we ourselves are “fading?”

That “fairer” is “as the Day” causes the “Hindering – Haunting – Perishing.” The only way these items seem to relate is through a light metaphor. Day hinders darkness, its remainder haunts darkness, then it perishes completely in the face of night. “Fading” governs the three, but “Haunting” is central.

Which brings us to the rallied glow: what “rallies her Glow, like a dying Friend?” The ghost of beauty, one can say. To be more precise: the identification of beauty (seen by light) with the light itself (or at least the remainder of light). Beauty is the source of light. This fact is so essential it would force us to reconsider “is.”

That cannot happen here, of course. This poem demands consideration of the origin of a thought, not so much the thought itself. The “dying Friend” was the true source of the first stanza. “Glittering Amend” indicates this is not an unmixed beauty: beauty here is not neutral to justice, but assumes the good overwhelms all prior injustice. This glow/glitter is too bright, because of the darkness. The darkness, therefore, is aggravated; before, in the first stanza, it was merely a function of time. Now it is something that resents being used, that wishes to be pure. This allows the convergence of “expiring” and “perfect” in an image.

It is tempting to take Dickinson’s logic and say that idols/gods are perpetually dying friends. They are dead, but what we see in their beautiful light is our own mortality. The trouble with that argument is, to some degree, its inhumanity. We actually have dying friends, and we want to remember them at their best. That is not beauty in-and-of itself. But it explains beauty’s most salient aspect.

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