Emily Dickinson, “These are the days when Birds come back”(130)

Merely staring out the window, Dickinson envisions no less than a sacrament:

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze —
Permit a child to join.

Some may be tempted to dismiss her. A “Last Communion in the Haze” has a melodramatic sound. Surely true sacraments ask the Church and God Himself to bear witness! In response, I will note one sort of experience people consider religious. Most would say living everyday life with a deep gratitude has a sacred quality. Religious writers consumed by the middle and upper classes try to see ritual emerging from the practice of quiet virtue. I should add, as a not terribly irrelevant aside, that a dangerous contentment can be bred if one sees one’s way of life as exclusively a gift from God. I’ll never forget an acquaintance obsessed with looking for small moments in her life she could say were God-given. It made her dismissive of others; it led to overt racism. Other people’s claims about justice and grace could not even be considered.

Dickinson wants to join a sacrament as a mere child. What governs her is less an assumption of rightness but a want of awe, curiosity, and innocence. How did she reach this desire?

These are the days when Birds come back (130)
Emily Dickinson

These are the days when Birds come back —
A very few — a Bird or two —
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old — old sophistries of June —
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee —
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear —
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze —
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake —
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

It begins with a “fraud.” “The days when Birds come back,” “the days when skies resume the old… sophistries of June” misdirect. They lead Dickinson to think summer isn’t quite finished. It’s a thought she willingly indulges.

Vendler holds that in this poem, Dickinson works to progress beyond “Nature’s sophistical promise of eternal joy” (36). I submit that while the theme of “eternal joy” has a grand and philosophic aura, it fails to speak to more pressing, personal concerns. Namely: When we reflect, must we indulge untruth? If we try to think through our truest joys, can we maintain them?

Dickinson watches a few returning birds as they look around, some looking backwards. She’s wondering about herself. She’d like summer-like moments to continue indefinitely. For that matter, we all would. I remember having a crush for the right reasons: seeing one eager to learn but also open to levity, or another dedicated to serious causes but not forgoing compassion. I hated losing those feelings; I hated losing belief in someone. I imagine that’s what is at stake in Dickinson’s “backward look.” Not “eternal joy,” but the moments we most want to reflect upon, moments pregnant with possibility and pain.

Our desire to reflect is a trap. We are amazingly good at convincing ourselves of anything. “The old — old sophistries of June” are not the sky’s. We want to see a “blue and gold mistake,” a rich glassy firmament glowing with light. In reflection, we bring our hopes into being, nearly recrafting the past.

The matter of thought is itself thought. It’s a “fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.” Other creatures, busy building homes and working to survive and flourish, do not busy themselves with trying to get the past exactly right. But though Dickinson stands momentarily paralyzed by reverie, she awakens from it. She sees the trees, “the ranks of seeds,” bear witness to a changed season and the author herself. They bear witness to her as their leaves change color and fall. They see her as changed, even if she can’t see it herself. I used to think that in being lovesick I was perhaps impervious to growth. The truth is weirder than that, even when one lacks or tries to purposely reject maturity.

It’s that weirdness—that mystery—Dickinson transfers from reflection to sacrament. She knows she loved, she knows she once felt complete. And now she knows that very feeling of completeness entails embracing change. She believed herself capable of joy and reflection before, and both these capacities proved themselves. How to embrace a future most certainly colder and darker? Only with awe, curiosity, innocence—only with a childlike reverence for experience itself. The “sacred emblems to partake,” the communion that links one with the divine, comes from acceptance of the imagination. It enables one to see what is most nourishing—again, nearly bringing it into existence. In this sense, imagination providing the material for reflection is like “immortal wine” more than bread. Bread is taken but not broken: it is the sign of the real, consecrated in hope but not lost to fantasy (36). For myself, asking what I want in a partner has not merely been useful, but empowering. It does not place the burden of love on me alone.

References

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 35-37.

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