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

After another day of worrying about everything and nothing, I find myself drawn to imaginative realms, specifically places for meditation and of meditation. Dickinson, with painterly words, creates an image which she may only be able to witness and never directly experience: A lane of Yellow led the eye / Unto a Purple Wood. She emphasizes how she sees (“led the eye”) and what she sees (“a Purple Wood”), and I do believe she invites us to consider that what is not directly experienced can actually be experienced.

A lane of Yellow led the eye (1650)
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 — 

Her colorful vision changes into another sensation. The “Purple Wood” contains soft inhabitants to be and either they, or the Wood itself, surpass “solitude.” She seems to have created a meditative realm from elements of her daily life. The sun stopped shining, and as evening fell, sunset made the forest purple. Alone, she imagines the forest containing only gentle growth and creatures. At once she transcends her loneliness and amplifies it. This is her world, a world resolving in softness, but what does it mean? Is it even real?

She finds herself trying to imagine specific “soft inhabitants.” If Bird the silence contradict / Or flower presume to show / In that low summer of the West / Impossible to know. Her vision seems a lost cause. She doesn’t know if silence has overwhelmed the birds or whether any flowers have bloomed. It’s “impossible to know” what the inhabitants of the wood actually do. But she did follow a “lane of Yellow” to this “Purple Wood.” She did feel a momentary softness, one governing all inhabitants, and she found herself in a specific moment, a “low Summer.” Perhaps she doesn’t know because she believes.

What does it mean then, to have a full vision that cannot engage a specific life? Here, Dickinson’s loneliness and my worries converge. Am I lost in solipsism? Do I do anything real? If I did, would my life be entirely different? Dickinson’s poem culminates in softness, a world where she does not want to disturb the inhabitants. It’s a conscious choice which happens to coincide with the failure to be able to identify the behavior of other living things. If she could hear what noise they make or what form they display, they would be welcome to a poem which started with colorful nature imagery. But they don’t, as if they are asleep in a wood, and she’s fine with that. Her meditative realm takes the limits of observation to be what they are, and nothing more.

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