Emily Dickinson, “The Sky is low” (1075)

The Sky is low (1075)
Emily Dickinson

The Sky is low — the Clouds are mean.
A Travelling Flake of Snow
Across a Barn or through a Rut
Debates if it will go —

A Narrow Wind complains all Day
How some one treated him
Nature, like Us is sometimes caught
Without her Diadem.


One might long for the day when the sky meets the earth – i.e. walking on clouds. But at this moment for our speaker, such a thing is oppressive (“The Sky is low — the Clouds are mean”). A snowflake seems to be moving more (“travelling”) and deciding more (“debates”) than her.

Not that the snowflake going “across a Barn” or “through a Rut” is a great choice. Then again, that might be the choices available to our speaker. Except it’s snowing out, so she might not even have that.

The second stanza shifts from “sky/clouds/flake of snow” to wind. Where you are – between a barn and a rut, in the sky, from the clouds – does not really frame a choice. The wind will blow the flake where it will and the wind itself is complaining. There are forces, pressures, passions like the wind but they are not purposeful though they may be sensitive.

Even the things pushing us to make a decision – maybe making decisions for us – are vulnerable and not quite decided. Dickinson’s speaker realizes at this point in the poem she’s talking about herself. If she was the snowflake and the snowflake was caught in the wind, then she is also the wind.

It seems like she’s been describing a problem of free will indirectly, but she ends the poem talking about a lack of a Diadem. I consider the Diadem to be symbolic of Reason: it crowns. When the sky came low and met the earth, Nature ceased to have anything “higher.” By analogy, the problems of the speaker aren’t problems of reason. Reason has been absent the whole time. There’s a longing, a lack of moving anywhere worthwhile, a sympathy with that within oneself wanting something different.

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