Emily Dickinson, “When I have seen the Sun emerge” (888)

Only a few times have I been able to appreciate the enormity of the rising sun, I confess. Usually I’m out the door to work in the dark of early morning. The one time I can recall a sunrise most clearly I was reeling after a breakup. I hadn’t slept all night and I started to take a walk when the dark was receding. I was caught by surprise not much later, as yellow light broke open the sky by giving it an increasing number of hues and textures. It was a new day, and the emergence of the Sun was a full field of possibilities:

When I have seen the Sun emerge (888)
Emily Dickinson

When I have seen the Sun emerge
From His amazing House –
And leave a Day at every Door
A Deed, in every place –

Without the incident of Fame
Or accident of Noise –
The Earth has seemed to me a Drum,
Pursued of little Boys

Dickinson also confesses awe before the power of a sunrise—When I have seen the Sun emerge / From His amazing House. Her excitement differs from mine, though. The Sun, as part of the cosmos, was somewhere amazing before morning occurred. The Sun shining upon the Earth is still an incredible happening, of course. The Sun leaves a Day at every Door / A Deed, in every place. It provides opportunity, allows for action, enables life as we know it. Yet where it was before it appeared to us—”His amazing House”—may be far greater than we ordinarily imagine.

The Sun came from an amazing place, gave each and all a day and more, and did this Without the incident of Fame / Or accident of Noise. Dickinson invokes the themes of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare initially seems to conceive his life and legacy as akin to a mighty tree. That tree meets ruination, to be sure: yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. But one can see in the dark comedy of those lines what was intended—a blossoming, healthy tree that was a noisy world unto itself. Likewise, Sonnet 18 is not shy about promising immortality caused by poetic fame:

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

No “incident of Fame” or “accident of Noise” was involved in giving the world everything. What is the “amazing House” where the Sun rests? We don’t really know, as it is beyond us—strangely enough, like knowledge itself. The Earth has seemed to me a Drum, / Pursued of little Boys—so many, not just poets, are seeking nothing but validation. They’re crafting what they believe perfection for the most self-serving purposes. They’re employing all their technical skills, all their knowledge, to do this. Contrast this with the Sun, which simply lights and warms the Earth. It is universal in the sense that it is there for everyone, but its giving conceals a greater mystery. What are cosmic purposes? Where does knowledge lead? Perhaps more importantly, where does it rest?

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