Poet’s Challenge 10: ‘A Light Exists in Spring’ by Emily Dickinson

The challenge this time is to use the rhymes Dickinson used in this poem, whether as internal or external rhymes. We may make of them what we will. We need not emulate her style or her vocabulary or syntax, though it’s good to plow up and till our own once in a while.

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period–
When March is scarcely here.

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the Lawn
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to me.

Then as Horizons step
or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay–

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

When I was in college a literature professor suggested, based on some reading she had done of someone else’s work, that Emily Dickinson’s poems were written to familiar hymn tunes (or at least hung upon the musical meters belonging to them) and that the dashes represent places where she had left a note without a word.

I don’t know if this theory ever caught on or if it is still current. What I do know is that if you read the poems aloud, there’s a singularly romantic and emotional effect you can achieve by reading with pauses at the dashes instead of at the ends of lines. One interesting thing about this is that it sometimes teaches you where to put swells and falls in the voice, where to emphasize and de-emphasize, beyond the teaching that mere meter does with our English language.

I think this matters to us because of the discussion about Leah’s poem in the second-to-last challenge. We were discussing whether a metrical liberty she had taken was really all right to take. She believed that it worked if read a certain way; we were uncertain about whether that’s quite orthodox (poetically speaking) because after all, the reader wouldn’t necessarily know whether to read it that way. Perhaps Dickinson wrestled with the same issue? And perhaps the dashes were one way of working it out? (Or perhaps they would function that way for our purposes, even if she didn’t and they weren’t?)

I love formal poetry, but the truth is that normal pronunciation squeezes into meter only with the consent of a skilled reader sometimes. So the poet and the reader have to cooperate on this – the poet trying to indicate and the reader trying to intuit how the words can be spoken with fullness and feeling and meter, all at once. Of course it’s this kind of puzzle, and solving it well on both ends, that gives formal poetry its superior value.

And then you wonder about Dickinson’s capital letters. It’s a Romantic-poetish way of writing, sure, but does it also contain hints about pronunciation? Did she read her own poems over and over again to herself the way I sometimes do, whispering their incantations and reviving in her soul the visions and inner motions of which they were made to be the vessels? Did she have a favorite way of pronouncing her poems, and did she linger over the swelling roundness of the Important Words?

(What accent would she have spoken in?)

At the very least, I feel whenever I dip into the Romantic poets how much idiosyncrasy and individualism and even obscurity good literature can bear. One doesn’t aim at them – one aims at significance. But one also doesn’t stop at any innovation or removal that better expresses one’s strained-at significance than conventional usage can do. The reader and the poet must strain together on this, but in opposite directions.

Punctuation itself can therefore be idiosyncratic. In fact, it had almost better be. The best poetry happens when we attend to that within ourselves or our world – or better yet the interaction between the two – for which no immediate verbal expression springs to mind. We enter into voluntary struggle and become not the slavish users of language with its rules, but the next Makers of it. Not the destroyers and pullers-down of that which has been previously built (like some so-called poets of anything-goes, who think it’s all right because they make a little sandcastle in the rubble) but the builders of little parapets and towers – and patios and gables – upon the hallowed structure.

Or at least we try. Good luck.


  1. Alana, I hope you save all of your writings on poetry. What you have to say both reveals and elicits deeper-than-ordinary thoughts and more interesting ones than appear in standard literary criticism. You say it so well too.

    About the challenge, I confess that I was intimidated when I saw the poem. Her work is unique. Sacred in its way. I darent emulate. But then I reread the introduction. Well, that took the heat off. So if I don’t feel up to plowing and tilling right now, i can just play with the rhymes. Right, but when I focus on specific rhymes I think I tend to lose what possible idiosyncrasy of language or vision that I might have had, or which might have been given to me (foolish fantasy, I know, but fun). In other words, I’m not having any luck here. Maybe once I see your poem and Leah’s, I’ll get going. Right now, Nothing. But . . .

    Around the same time as you posted the challenge, I came across a reference to the writings of Susan Howe, in particular her book called “My Emily Dickinson” (1985), and decided to follow up, hoping that I might find something of interest to share. I’m not sure yet about the sharing part ( her big idea is that women writers write like women–i.e.,with a unique viewpoint– and should be understood that way, and not be subjected to the condescending judgments common to male literary criticism. That kind of discussion can get complicated) Happily however I am learning a bit about Dickinson’s sensitivity to her intellectual environment and about her wide range of reading. Evidently if she remained apart from the social world, except in a few cases, that was by choice–perhaps because she found friends enough in books and their authors. The Bronte sisters, to cite one example. In addition, Howe quotes excerpts from Dickinson’s letters and journal-type prose fragments.

    So now I’m not feeling so bad about giving up (or postponing) the poetry challenge. “A light exists in Spring” has given me lots to think about–including a few puzzles in the poem itself. e.g., I’m trying to picture what is going on in the fourth stanza; the passing of a day, I’m guessing, but how to read “Noons report away” and what is “it” that passes, the color “that stands abroad” and that “human nature feels”?, or the light itself? (I think they are meant to be different elements of spring, but I’m not sure.) I’m tempted to think of her “light that exists” as something more than tone or shade of color, both of which change during the day. Then again, I may be thinking too much.

    Not asking for the correct answer so much as telling about how I try to read. I like phrases and lines that make me stretch, as long as they are not completely out of reach. Good choice of poem.


    • Thank you, Albert. I haven’t given much thought to saving anything but I suppose I should back up the blog. I do have an essay on poetry that I’ve been working on for a couple of years on and off. It’s meant to be wild and poetic and sort of be what it’s saying – and of course trounce on all the silly contemporary limitations on poetry that I like to denounce. But I’m sort of saving it for a book.

      I understand if this challenge isn’t your cup of tea. Leah noted she especially likes working with given rhymes, so this one was sort of for her. One thing that I mentioned in other challenges but forgot to mention in this is that you don’t have to use ALL the rhymes. And they can be internal rhymes, so even if you just used two of her end-rhymes somewhere close to one another in the poem, it would count. As you can see, in my poem I only used two sets of rhymes from Dickinson and the rest are my own. We’re very flexible here. 🙂 Anyhow, I hope you do get inspired to dash something off for the challenge. It’s the deed, man, – the deed!

      I have sometimes wondered whether there is something that distinguishes masculine and feminine writing. It would be interesting and exciting. You could conceive of literary partnerships as tension-making and tension-breaking as marriage. Hm, perhaps the Brownings are a good example?

      How fortuitous that you are reading this portrait of Emily Dickinson just now. My knowledge of her is only the scant general knowledge one picks up without actually reading a book about her. You make it sound intriguing.

      As far as the whole male-dominated academia issue, things have sure progressed since 1985. We’re witnessing the conversion of American academia to female domination. Most University students are now female. Male professors still abound, but they seem to be paying constant lip-service to feminism. This gives us an opportunity to test theories about female oppression.

      I see so many instances of literarily sensitive men loving the great female poets, and vice verse, that I feel whatever difference is there must be a cause of attraction rather than repulsion. Wherever you see condescension and contempt, I am far more inclined to attribute it to the dreadfully competitive atmosphere among 3rd and 4th rate academic literati. The clever, competitive, common thousands, I call them. Naturally, in a situation where most of the people on the inside are male and most on the outside are female, this situation could appear as a sexism issue. The problem with that theory is that the influx of women into academia has not solved the problem. If anything, the competition has taken on a new pettiness and viciousness.

      As a female poet myself – or poetess, to use my preferred term – I do think that literary giftedness is much rarer in women than our level of enrollment in English departments would suggest. It’s all well and good to say that we don’t measure up because it’s men who have been doing the measuring. But what has happened to the quality of literature since masses of women began spending their lives on it? What have women, en masse, brought to literature except ditties about hips and tampons?

      I much prefer the few female greats to the chattering feminine hordes. And I’m all for women who aren’t the few female greats writing, but I think we write better when we write “on our own terms” – and we have to have terms to write on them. What’s the use of entering and exploding institutions created by men for men, leaving our own institutions empty and forsaken? Then everything dies.

      I think that Feminine writing cannot stay feminine as long as women don’t have distinctively feminine lives and experiences to draw on for their writing. Emily Dickinson had that, however individually distinctive. Leah and I have that to some extent. And while it’s true that neither she nor I will ever be favorites of the academic crowd, I think we’ve both witnessed how the female academics are the most vicious and contemptuous dismissers of our kind of work.

      Throughout history, women have been the main enforcers of morals, social graces, and the rules of family and social life. Singly, we may be capable of being literary giantesses, but en masse, we’re basically society’s enormously finessed moral and emotional police. So you put women, en masse, into English and literature departments and what you get is a hair-rendingly gosh-awful horde of literary police. It’s a bad match.

      So now you have to be nice to everyone in your poetry – in other words, you have to write for the lowest common intellectual/artistic denominator of possible reader, no matter how dull that makes your poetry. You have to make it accessible to the mentally handicapped. You have to give a nod to everyone who’s ever been oppressed in every poem. You have to reject everything that was ever considered a literary virtue because those virtues were once loved by a predominantly male academia (never mind whether they are actually virtues still.) Oh lord, and the endless priggishness about grammar and punctuation and up-to-date vocabularies and syntax.

      Well anyhow, as you say, that kind of discussion can get complicated.

      Yes, ‘noons report away’ is an unusual phrase. I wonder whether it has something to do with noon bells or noon sirens? ‘Report’ would then be a sound, like the “report” of a gun being fired. This is supported by “without the formula of sound,” right?

      “Something more than tone or shade of color” – yes, it does seem that she is straining at “something more.”

      I’ve experienced something like this myself, I think. In Wisconsin, where winters recede slowly, there’s usually a brief period of time that seems suspended just between winter and spring. In the woods at this time, the trees don’t appear to have leaves yet, but if you look closely, they are just starting. Everything is greening just slightly. And it’s such a bright shade of green. If you stand far off and glance at it, it almost looks like a bright green mist has settled over the winter trees, as if something is brooding over the woods to bring forth spring. It’s the kind of thing that feels inexpressible, and yet you want to express it. As if whatever is brooding there makes the sap rise in your own veins a little. After it’s gone, your “content” is indeed “affected” with a “quality of loss.” I know that feeling.


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