Category Archives: Bierstadt, Albert

The Mountains – grow unnoticed

The Mill, 1648, Rembrandt
Background Image: The Rocky Mountains, 1866, Albert Bierstadt

Emily could be writing about herself as a poet who every day will “grow unnoticed” and she writes only because she must, not for fame or “applause”. Yet she also describes “fellowship” in contrast to the lonely work of building a mountain but who is it she desires “fellowship” with? Is she suggesting that the light of the sun (inspiration) spends each night with her in dreams?

I would imagine Emily never actually saw the mountains, at least not the kind she’s describing in this poem. However, not having first-hand experience is no impediment to the creative mind, and I think that’s partially what she getting at here, especially with the final image of the poem in which the mountains turn “golden” and then “night” comes. This image is important because the light of the sun which had been illuminating the “Faces” of the “Mountains” ends its day tucked in with the mountains, as if the light of the “Sun” which reveals all that which is visible to the naked eye, shines differently at night and illuminates the unseen world. If you think about how dreams work, especially the fact that you can see even though your eyes are closed, where is this light source coming from if not the “Sun” who has nestled itself in the mountain range of your dreams?

Thus Emily, who does not often leave her home, is still able to travel across the universe every night and then reports back her findings the next day in her poetry. She is, like the geologist who studies how “Mountains – grow”, she records the growth of her imagination and what is revealed there in her own notes, and she does so without asking for any recognition or help. Her only companion is her imagination and that seems to be plenty of “fellowship” for her.

These are the days when Birds come back

Autumn Woods, 1886, Albert Bierstadt
Background Image: Autumn Woods, 1886, Albert Bierstadt

One of the few poems she published in her lifetime. Here she enjoys a warm autumn day while understanding that summer is over and winter is on its way. Readers of this poem would probably have assumed Emily was quite devout since she relies heavily on religious imagery, but they might have missed how she’s really talking about broken promises.

In the first stanza, the birds who have begun their migration south have returned believing that summer has returned while only a “few – a Bird or two” are not fooled and do not look back to New England. I actually thought of Lot and Lot’s wife when I first read this since looking back to the past which she equates to the “sophistries of June” is a sign that you wish to return to your sinful ways and thus God will punish you (turn you into salt). And this is what is unusual about this poem in that she’s saying “June” was lying to us, that the springtime is a trickster almost akin to Sodom.

Yet it’s not just springtime she says breaks its “sacrament” with us, it’s every season because even though “summer” was the season of plenty, of “bread” and “wine”, all we can do in autumn is remember what times were easy, to eat this bread and drink this wine in memory of something that has ended. The life of leisure and abundance is slowly falling away like “a timid leaf” and the speaker of the poem wants to return to those “summer days” the way Lot’s wife looked back on her old life before God punished her.

Of course this is a very pessimistic reading of a poem that is usually read as being about someone daydreaming about summer during an particularly warm autumn (perhaps late October) day and that only the “Bee” and “a Bird or two” are wise enough to not be fooled by the temporary reprieve of impending winter. Yet the longing and yearning for a time when things were easier fills this poem with a melancholy of someone who believes that all they will be able to do is remember better times because hard times are coming soon. All the promises (“sacrament[s]”) that were given the speaker earlier in the year “Hurries” off the branches the way someone who grows old looks back at all the promise of their youth turned into a pile of leaves late in life.

And though Emily often talks about cycles and the return of things, here the poem seems to have a finality to it, as if there will be no more sophistic June’s to come, that all is ending, all the promises have been broken, and all that’s left is to remember the way things were when times were better. In the end she asks to become part of immortality, to be accepted into the ranks of He who has been resurrected, but this plea goes unanswered – God does not come down from the clouds to take her up to heaven, she can only stand and watch the leaves fall from the trees in silence and hope that things may get better.