Emily Dickinson, “Nature rarer uses Yellow” (1045)

Nature rarer uses Yellow (1045)
Emily Dickinson

Nature rarer uses Yellow
Than another Hue.
Saves she all of that for Sunsets
Prodigal of Blue

Spending Scarlet, like a Woman
Yellow she affords
Only scantly and selectly
Like a Lover’s Words.


It’s tempting to just pass over this poem, categorize it under “pretty words.” I almost did that, but gave it a reread while waiting around in a parking lot for a friend.

So yellow is rarely used, unless we’re talking about Sunsets. The sun was gorgeous in the wintry sky recently. It was this pale, golden yellow that was more brightness than color. Dickinson’s speaker does not seem to mean that sun. I suspect we’re being drawn a flower image through the sunset. “Prodigal of Blue:” the whole sky is a flowering and an ending. The blue that should frame any incidence there has been completely spent.

All of yellow is used in the “Sunsets.” Even there, the sun is orange, the sky purple and red with pinks all over. There is soft yellow light in patches that does seem more delicate than other colors. “Scarlet” is spent a bit less than blue, but still used a lot compared to yellow. Now we do know sunrises are not absent yellow. Yet the speaker chooses to focus on sunsets only.

Moreover, the speaker uses a consistent wealth metaphor: “saves,” “prodigal,” “spending,” “affords.” Even stranger is the double simile that brings her from color to words. Scarlet is spent “like a woman;” yellow is afforded “like a lover’s words.” First “scarlet,” then “yellow,” but both are reached through likeness. The rare color, itself a sign of an image (I know. It’s that crazy), only lends itself to words through a woman’s pain and choice. “Scantly and selectly” imply there is not much difference between pain and choice. At the least, there isn’t much to choose from.

The speaker does seem to be a hurt woman seeing nature very partially. That does not mean she is mistaken. Blue isn’t just wealth, it is freedom (William Stafford: “Birds fly here without any sound / unfolding their wings across the open). Yellow has to be saved. The speaker is part of nature, after all. Lovers come and go and say incredible things. Some of those things have to preserved, even when a lover leaves. Scantly and selectly, they paint the distance from the sun to the clouds like yellow. After a time, I imagine you can wonder what a sunrise means, if it means anything at all.

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