The Guest is gold and crimson

Rembrandt's Son Titus in a Monk's Habit, 1660, Rembrandt
Background Image: Rembrandt’s Son Titus in a Monk’s Habit, 1660, Rembrandt

This is a case where I wasn’t sure what she was referring to at first and then when I realized she was talking about a sunset I felt pretty dumb. But this is often the case for Emily’s poems in that she never comes right out and says what it is she means, rather she dances around the subject and thus gives it a mysterious life by allowing the reader to imagine her subject. And often this can lead to some rather interesting readings such as how I assumed she was writing about who this was a poem about sleep (which in a way it is since we sleep after sundown) or perhaps it is about a royal / kingly death (which could also be true since she often describes death as being in a land in the west / at sundown). My first read of the poem made me feel like she’s on the edge of sleep and is dreaming of “the Lapwing’s shore” and that she’s on the edge of a new land / discovery / reality. I felt there was a sort of a madness, but also spiritual element too.

Knowing our birds helps focus one aspect of this poem on the spiritual level. The Lapwing has a crested head and she is referring back to her image of the “Capuchin” which has a pointed hood and is most recognized as being worn by a monk (though it is also an article of women’s clothing, such as what Little Red Riding Hood wears). Thus she is making a connection between the bird in nature and the monk in his spiritual realm and combined with the image of a sunset we get the sensation that she is alluding to one’s evening prayers and being carried off to sleep. This is also enforced by the behavior of the Lapwing to draw an intruder away from its nest and so she’s introducing an element of us being moved along to another “shore” which can refer to sleep, but also to death.

And while this poem feels somewhat whimsical and lacking any darker elements, there is no denying that the activity of the poem could be referring to kindly old death who “reaches town at nightfall” and “stops at every door” (at least eventually he will stop at every door). And those of us who survive the night once more look “for him at morning” (and here there is an audible relationship with the word mourning, as in the grief of the survivors the morning after someone has passed on in the night).

However, I don’t want to dwell too much on the possibility of there being a focus on death here since the image itself is quite beautiful and serene and leaves the reader with a calm the way a child is soothed to sleep and into dreamland. Sleep comes as a “Guest” whom we invite in every evening and thus our dreams are painted with the vivid colors of “gold and crimson” and “Opal” and “ermine” white. And there is a sense of journeying here with the “Lark” which, if we read this not just as a bird but as an adventure (as in ‘to go on a lark’) and also as in pushing off from the “Lapwing’s shore” in a lark which is a little boat which recalls her poem “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently” where a person transitions from life to the afterlife in a boat (which is a common image in many myths, such as Charon and Styx).