If this is “fading”

Sunset on the Passaic, 1891, George Inness
Background Image: Sunset on the Passaic, 1891, George Inness

Instead of describing a sunset – which is what a lesser poet would do – here she almost seems to become the sunset itself. She also mimics the slowness of the sun setting as it first fades, then dies, then sleeps, and in the final two lines she travels into the world of sleep where she both says good night to her “Fellow men” but also greets the world of “Fellow men” in dreams.

I wonder what the first humans thought was happening the first time they got tired and went to sleep – did they think they were dying? Did the first humans watch the sun setting and think the world was coming to an end? Scientifically speaking, they didn’t since all life on earth would have been accustomed to the setting sun and our evolutionary ancestors were falling asleep long before we left the trees to walk about the savanna. Yet the first humans were also the first living creatures to have (as far as we know) the capacity for poetry and this poem does seem to tap into a sort of ancient and mythic territory where the body journeys into a realm of spirits at nighttime.

The first verb of the poem is “fading” as she watches the light slowly “fade” from the day sky. This is a peaceful image and if you’ve ever really sat and watched a sunset it almost seems as if the process only takes place in hindsight since the actual changes are nearly imperceptible. Thus, for Emily, if life is fade from the body, then let it be like this, let it be gradual, painless, and serene.

The next verb, “dying” is her equating the dying light of the day with the death of the “fading” body. And this image is nothing new in poetry – countless poets good and bad have made the connection with the setting sun and death, but she puts an unusual twist on the image by asking for her “dying” body to be wrapped in “such a shroud of red”. This creates the image of her body somehow being aloft in the reddening sky as the sunset envelopes her. This image is what made me think she was tapping into something very ancient, almost shamanistic where the spirit is carried into the heavens as the “dying” light consumes the body and the two become one. It’s a striking image.

The next verb is of “sleep”. Again, equating sleep and death is nothing new, but here she is mimicking her action of watching the sun go down with her own eyes closing. In effect we are falling asleep with her “On such a night” and she has prepared us for the dreams to come with her image of being buried “in such a shroud of red”.

And she completes the image of sleep with “Good evening” which is actually a cute pun in that she’s saying this “evening” has been “good”, but also the word “evening” does not just mean nighttime, it also means a leveling – to even something out – which completes the image of the body and the sunset becoming one. And it is at this point where we are in the dream because not only does she say the usual “Good evening” to those we wish a pleasant sleep, but this “Good evening” can also be a greeting that she announces to her “gentle Fellow men”. And who are these “men”? Well, the image of the “Peacock” and all its eyes could be the eyes of all the “gentle Fellow men” who are also falling asleep at the same time and as the “Peacock” closes its feathers as the sun sets under the horizon, all the eyes close together and journey into the land of dreams as everyone “presumes to die”. And thus the poem ends when we are fully asleep.