The story of Nicodemus is about rebirth and being reborn and Emily describes in detail how beautiful the world is when seen anew and at springtime. Yet there is also an interesting aspect to this conversation at work in this poem that is buried in the subtext and it deals with her use of the word “furtive” as well as “Chanticleer” (as from Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale).
The first line of the poem can be read quite literally that there is “an altered look about the hills” in that the “hills” look different, but because she is alluding to the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, this can also be read that one should look at the “hills” in a new way – in other words, there is an element at work here of one being instructed to something in a new way. Perhaps because it’s her use of “look about” which not only means there is something “about” the “hills” that is “altered”, but also one should “look about” the “altered hills”. Finally, this line also works really well as a title since what she’s giving us is “an altered look about the hills”.
The second line mentions the city of “Tyre” a prosperous city (that God will one day destroy), but here Emily is alluding to how one can profit by being reborn. I suppose you could say she making a subtle economic pun, but her use of the word “light” also creates an image of a golden city shining with golden morning sunlight (the next line deals with a “sunrise” after all) and so light – as in the golden “light” of God – is mixed with the profit of gold. Thus one can become rich by being born again.
Lines three and four not only convey the passage of time, but also move the image from the scale of a city – Tyre – to the more personal of one’s “lawn” in their yard when families gather in the warm evening to gather and play.
Lines five and six deal with the vibrant colors of spring and rebirth, yet she personifies this image with the use of “foot” and “finger”. Perhaps she is alluding to the feminine quality of nature as personified by mother nature, or perhaps she is implying the image of a person walking through a field of “vermilion” and then plucking a “purple” flower with their “finger”. Either way, the image of flowers as “purple” fingers is quite beautiful, but also playful since there is embedded in this image the idea of being beckoned towards this beauty the way Jesus gently beckons Nicodemus towards his teachings.
Lines seven and eight are related in that the “fly” and the “spider” are always related, but the “fly” is described as “flippant” which could be related to her later use of “furtive” in that Nicodemus is asking a question he should know the answer to. In John 3:4, Nicodemus asks Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” but he would know that Jesus wasn’t being literal so either he’s asking because he’s wondering if this Jesus fellow is a bit daft, or he making Jesus clarify exactly what a spiritual rebirth is. The “spider” and “fly” association is important here because though there is a somewhat sinister aspect to that relationship, it could also be read as the “spider” keeping the “flippant” “fly” from getting too far away. It could be read as Jesus being the “spider” and Nicodemus being the “flippant fly”.
Of most interest to me in this poem, however, is her use of the word “Chanticleer”. In Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale, she tells the story of Chanticleer who had a dream about a fox but was told by his wife not to worry about it, then later encounters the fox who tries to eat him, but is able to escape by playing on the fox’s pride. Chanticleer is literally in the jaws of death – as the “flippant fly” is when trapped in spider’s web – but is born again when he uses his intelligence to save himself. This is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus to do in order to be saved and enter the kingdom of heaven.
But if we continue with Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale, he describes the fox in that poem as “A col-fox, ful of sly iniquitee” (inequity). Emily in her poem uses the word “furtive” to describe a “look you know so well”. What is this “look”? Is it death? The first line of the poem speaks about an “altered look”, so is this “furtive look” related to the way we used to look at the world before we were saved? Embedded in the poem are some subtle reminders of death, such as the “spider” weaving its web for the “fly”, the “axe” swings not only for the tree but also for “Chanticleer’s” neck, and Tyre which will one day be razed by God’s wrath, so perhaps she offering a warning about the person who does not alter their way of looking at the world before it is too late?
The poem ends with her describing how salvation can be seen in nature each spring: “its annual reply” to the question of will winter ever end, but she combined the images of nature with that of the spiritual realm and of being reborn to be saved. A lesser poet would have left it just at that, a simple poem about nature’s rebirth, yet here she mixes in passages from the Bible, a possible allusion to Chaucer, and the unusual concept of accepting the kingdom of heaven thought the appreciation of nature which will one day be destroyed by God.