Emily Dickinson, “Rests at Night” (714)

“Rests at Night” (714)
Emily Dickinson

Rests at Night
The Sun from shining,
Nature – and some Men –
Rest at Noon – some Men –
While Nature
And the Sun – go on –

Comment:

I’m not sure if the first word is “rest” or “rests.” A lot may depend on that, and the Internet is telling me it is “rest.” I’m using the poem from the Thomas H. Johnson edition, and I’m going to hope this isn’t a typo when I defy the consensus presented by Google.

In any case, I think I have a grasp of the last three lines. “Some Men rest at Noon while Nature and the Sun go on.” Fair enough. There are those who may actually be lazy, or just look like they’re lazy, while the universe moves like clockwork (quite literally). Now the complications begin, as working backwards brings out a singular challenge. Both “Nature” “and some Men” “rest at Noon.” How could such a thing be true given what the last three lines seem to say? Either “Nature” goes on, or it “rests” at Noon.

The opening of the poem affords a clue to what’s going on. If “rests” opens the poem, then it only agrees with “The Sun” and “Nature.” The Sun doesn’t really rest at night: it’s just not visible. If “Nature” concerns an ordered universe, then it is the “Nature” of the sun to look like it rests at night. We mere mortals are given the illusion of a purposive cosmos. The Sun isn’t shining; we depend less on knowledge and more on a horizon wherein our sight is limited. That horizon is Nature in one way (we posit at least aspects of it, we’re part of it) and also not Nature (it is beyond us and will outlast us).

But that sounds like a concern of all men. Dickinson has said “some Men” and given us two groupings of men. Some men rest or work at noon because they don’t know any better. Others understand the Sun is always at work, and that Nature is a difficult thing to grasp because things change. Those others are at “work” of a sort, seeing that things become visible (“Noon”), and also perish (“Night”). I’m thinking this poem can be read with “rests” or “rest” opening it. If all three – Nature, the Sun and some men – rest at night, that doesn’t mean no one rests at noon. The issue is why anyone is resting in the first place and what “rest” means.

It may be the case that “Rest at Noon” does not denote laziness, but rather taking a break from work when appropriate. Dickinson is definitely aware of a world where people work as literal slave labor for subsistence. I get the distinct feeling this is ultimately a love poem, that “Men” might be literal in this case. Dickinson is giving us a speaker who has similar tastes to the author herself. There are more intellectual gentlemen, and the first question some women get asked after “so… are you interested in him” is “does he actually do anything?” Part of that world is an ideology where busy-ness can never be wrong. There’s a sly sexuality in this poem, and I wonder if the speaker’s response is an implicit “yes, he does do something.”

1 Comment

  1. Interesting reading Ashok.

    I’ve been hovering in your blog space for the past month or so, and i’ve LOVED all of your analysis of Dickinson work. I’m a big fan of hers but i could never “drink so deeply” from her work. You’ve definately helped me see deeper into her work. So thanks.

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