Emily Dickinson, “A lane of Yellow led the eye” (1650)

A lane of Yellow led the eye
Emily Dickinson

A lane of Yellow led the eye
Unto a Purple Wood
Whose soft inhabitants to be
Surpasses solitude
If Bird the silence contradict
Or flower presume to show
In that low summer of the West
Impossible to know —


For the wanderer, time passed. The day’s yellow became the purple of the wood. Even as one who would rather see for himself – know through experience – there was the distance of seeing and an anticipation. The “soft inhabitants” to be are the darkness of night. Somehow sleep and death connect; that much he knew. But how sleep’s “soft inhabitants,” those who are and will be, relate to death and nothingness – well.

The only hint of the question’s power: the soft inhabitants surpass solitude. This is mysterious, as it unites sleep and death in a whole beyond one’s perception. It makes no sense to talk about a producer of images (sleep) or not-being as the whole. The wanderer recognized what we slowly realize, that the “solitude” surpassed is his own. That sleep and death are an incomprehensible whole is exactly the problem.

He moved away from himself to try and view it, and perhaps himself, better. But the natural world in the face of a dying light is powerless. Every song or shriek of a bird seemed to be absorbed by silence. A flower’s growth and display meant nothing as the sun grew dimmer. One thing stood out for him as he reflected, “the low summer of the West.” Summer can be associated with intense passion, and perhaps none is more intense than that which would lead one to link sleep and death. I’m doing a close read of Macbeth with a friend; it is stunning how many times various characters muse on sleep, death, and the state of their ambition.

Whether bird or flower were explicitly contradicted by day’s end is “impossible to know.” The wanderer’s passion set up the identification of sleep and death. He wanted to know how day’s end might reflect the end of himself and perhaps of all things. But knowledge doesn’t work that way; it does not necessarily come from what’s logical, i.e. that an end in time can inform one’s end or the end of time itself. The eye saw in “Yellow,” “Purple,” then soft inhabitants. It saw in color more than form, metaphor more than fact. The wanderer cannot get a certain knowledge from his sight, but then again, the fundamental issue is not knowledge.

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