Poetry Sunday: “As Imperceptibly as Grief,”
by Emily Dickinson

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I’ve been wanting to feature a poem by Emily Dickinson for some time, and this one seems perfect for this time of year. I came across “As Imperceptibly as Grief” recently at the circulation desk of the Colchester Library in Vermont. Like most of Dickinson’s work, it spoke peculiarly and powerfully to me. The references to summer visitors (“Guest”), birds (“wing”), and boats (“keel”) could have been drawn from the poems I wrote last month, and those capitalized words—Grief, Summer, Perfidy, Quietness, Twilight, Nature, Sequestered Afternoon, Dusk, Morning, Grace, Guest, Wing, Keel, Summer, and Beautiful—taken together chronicle my summer and New England summers in general.

Dickinson was a formal poet writing with meter and end rhyme, but she is known for taking liberties with the prescribed patterns. Most of her verse is written in common meter, a variation on hymn meter that employs alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables) in a rising pattern of inflection. Dickinson probably chose it because it was commonly used in church hymns and other songs of her time, but she completely appropriates the form by using slant instead of full end rhyme, varying the numbers of syllables and beats in lines, and interposing dashes that sometimes interrupt the meter.

Today’s poem is presented as a single stanza, but meter and rhyme suggest a division following Dickinson’s practice of using four-line stanzas rhymed ABCB, and it is possible that the poem was originally broken into quatrains. In the first two, the “B” rhymes are slant: “lapse away” is paired with “perfidy” and “long begun” with “afternoon.” In the third quatrain, lines 9, 10, and 12 all end on a similar-sounding nasal:

The Dusk drew earlier in—
The Morning foreign shone—
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone—

The last four lines return to the ABCB pattern, slant rhyming “keel” with the last syllable of “beautiful.”

The poem starts out in lockstep common meter, with the first four lines deploying 8, 6, 8, and 6 syllables. The next quatrain introduces a variation known as “short meter,” with syllable counts of 6, 6, 8, and 6. The third offers yet another variation—7, 6, 9, and 6 syllables—and the last four lines repeat the short meter seen in the second quatrain. Interestingly, Dickinson’s pattern of adherence to and departure from common meter in the four quatrains could be charted as ABCB, the same scheme that defines the rhyme pattern in common meter.

We can also count beats in today’s poem, finding three or four stressed syllables in each line, as follows: 4343, 3343, 3343, and 3343. Dickinson is known for her experimentation—unusual for her time—with a variety of metrical forms including short meter and the ballad stanza, and she uses enjambment more frequently than traditional hymn writers, breaking lines even where there is no natural or syntactic pause.

Common meter is rhythmic and regular, so these variations enable Dickinson to craft a poem that, as we read it, feels spontaneous, lively, and energetic. As with many of her poems, this one accelerates and slows, interrupts itself, holds its breath, and ends in an unresolved place. Dickinson’s practice of  substituting near for full rhymes and decreasing or increasing syllable counts slightly off the expected pattern has an unbalancing effect, a kind of literary vertigo that creates the spontaneity that make the poem still feel fresh more than a hundred years after it was written.

The predictability of fixed meter enables writers to play content off against form, a technique Dickinson uses in today’s poem. Again, the first four lines faithfully follow common meter, being rhymed ABCB and containing 8, 6, 8, and 6 syllables:

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy—

But, notice how, at the expected moment of sonic and semantic closure at the end of the 4th line, Dickinson upends the common meter structure with a word—“Perfidy”—that is surprising both in sound and in meaning. Sound is surprising because the rhyme between “lapsed away” and “perfidy” is very slant. Semantically, we understand the idea of summer waning by minute degrees and can appreciate that grief recedes in much the same way, but—perfidy? How does that fit? The word means “treachery” or “betrayal,” and its appearance, instead of giving closure to this quatrain, opens the portal to a host of larger questions and associations. Like many of Dickinson’s poems, this one makes us work to understand how a lessening of grief can seem like a betrayal of our love for the person lost, just as summer’s insistence on ending could, were it not so subtle, feel like a betrayal.

About a third of the poem’s lines (2, 4, 8, 9, 10, and 12) conclude with an em dash, the contemporary printer’s version of the heavily inked horizontal and sometimes vertical marks that recur in Dickinson’s handwritten poems. She seems to use them to create a pause different from the caesurae created by conventional punctuation, something more open that captures speed and breathlessness as well as a sense of the indefinite. The em dashes sometimes link thoughts and ideas, often oxymoronic or paradoxical and can be seen equally as joining ideas or as pushing them apart. Dickinson is known for embracing oppositions, a quality that contributes to the liveliness and vigor of her work:

Comparison becomes a reciprocal process. Dickinson’s metaphors observe no firm distinction between tenor and vehicle. Defining one concept in terms of another produces a new layer of meaning in which both terms are changed. . . . Dickinson frequently builds her poems around this trope of change. Her vocabulary circles around transformation, often ending before change is completed. .  . . . In this world of comparison, extremes are powerful. There are many negative definitions and sharp contrasts. While the emphasis on the outer limits of emotion may well be the most familiar form of the Dickinsonian extreme, it is not the only one. Dickinson’s use of synecdoche is yet another version. The part that is taken for the whole functions by way of contrast. The specific detail speaks for the thing itself, but in its speaking, it reminds the reader of the difference between the minute particular and what it represents. Opposition frames the system of meaning in Dickinson’s poetry: the reader knows what is, by what is not. [www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/emily-dickinson]

Let’s see how this works out in today’s poem. It opens in a series of abstractions, comparing the waning of summer to the waning of grief and locating in both the speaker’s attenuated sense of betrayal. The next four lines compare the waning to the ending of a single day in which twilight and dusk follow an afternoon. In these lines, “Nature” is personified as a woman (“herself”) who is able to experience alone time (“sequestered”), and we are given the sense not just of the current summer ending but of the inevitable ending of all summers, surely a metaphor for death.

“The dusk drew earlier in / The mornings foreign shone” refers to the shortening of daylight hours after the vernal equinox. Just look how wonderfully the idea is communicated, in terms of both meaning and sound. There is music in the consonance of “dusk drew” and in the slant rhyme of “foreign shone,” and a wonderful strangeness in the inverted syntax and unexpected usage of the word “foreign” to describe “morning.” All this puts a kind of glow on something we might have previously taken for granted, the way that days shorten as summer ends. Music and meaning work together to create a sense of mystery and even peculiarity in these allusions to what lies beneath the surface of a late summer day: the chill in the morning, a maple whose leaves are beginning to redden, and other signs that, as they say in Game of Thrones, winter is coming.

The feeling is of being on the verge and moreover on the verge of experiencing loss, an idea refined in a “courteous, yet harrowing Grace, /As Guest, that would be gone—.” That is, summer’s end evokes an experience of grace, but a grace that is somewhat tentative and circumscribed and, more disturbingly, “harrowing.” Dickinson would have been familiar with a harrow as an agricultural tool used to break up clods of soil as well as its colloquial usage denoting keen mental distress. Her usage of the word to describe the anxiety that happens when guests are overdue to depart is oddly spot-on. In this situation, guests feel torn between the desire to leave and the need, for the sake of politesse, to profess a desire to stay. As manager of her father’s household, Dickinson likely experienced more than a few of the joys and extra work of summer houseguests.

The first 12 lines present an  extended simile, comparing the way summer winds down to a series of things including grief, the cycle of a day, and the conclusion of a social visit that are summed up in line 15’s “And thus.” In those lines, the things summer is compared to are front and center, and we are, for a time, lost in their concreteness. The last quatrain returns to the more abstract idea that opened the poem: “summer lapsed away:”

And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.

It is not until the penultimate line that we meet the speaker of the poem, implied in the adjectival pronoun “our.” First-person plural is sometimes called the collective or communal “we,” and it is easy to see how using it, rather than, say, “my” summer, helps to universalize the particular experience of this poem. These last four lines introduce yet two more images, presented as synecdoche. The first, “without a wing,” uses a part to evoke the idea of a whole bird, and may even evoke flocks flying south for winter. “[S]ervice of a keel” uses a part to evoke the idea of a whole boat, something commonly seen in summer that is, moreover, often used as a means of escape. Dickinson makes a reverse metaphor of both images, saying that summer does not leave the way birds and boats do, showing her propensity to use oppositions and to define things by what they are not.

The point here is that when summer leaves, it does so “imperceptibly” and not by means of visible mechanics such as those used by birds or boats. We cannot see its act of leaving or how it is accomplished. The next line, “Our summer made her light escape,” puns wonderfully on the word “light,” using it both as an adjective meaning “easy” and also as a noun describing, yet again, the way days and their “light” diminish at summer’s end. As in many of her poems, Dickinson ends this one in a paradox. Summer’s “escape” is lovely and graceful at the same time it is painful. It retreats by minute degrees and then is gone into some greater Beauty—the fullness of time, perhaps, or memory, or some mystery beyond our comprehension. Just like that.


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  • Henry Taylor September 2, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    I recommend, without reservation, the “reading edition” of The Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by R. W. Franklin (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999). It is based on his three-volume variorum, the definitive edition of Dickinson’s poetry. This poem is #935 in Franklin’s edition. The only difference in the two editions of this poem is in the formatting of the dashes. Not a big deal, but Dickinson lovers will find in Franklin many poems that are not in Johnson.

    • Robin Flicker December 8, 2018 at 2:16 am

      I agree that the Franklin edition is more inclusive than the Johnson which, when I wrote my thesis on Dickinson in the 1980s, was the best there was. I think the formatting of the dashes is a big deal, and have argued as much in my writing on Dickinson. It’s thrilling to me that we have come so far in getting to what Dickinson intended her poems to be. She of course well knew how to use comas and semi-colons, and it behooves us as readers to recognize that her dashes were deliberate “staples in the song,” to use a phrase of hers.

      Thank you for this piece on Dickinson and for the comment above. She has too long been read as a simple, sentimental, poet of occasions. I would argue that she is among the most complex of poets, equal in imaginative and intellectual heft – and as radical in shifting the shape of language – as the brilliant poet of the Shoah, Paul Celan.