My first reading of this poem latched onto the idea that she was speaking specifically of women and that their mourning “morn” was “unseen” by men – in other words that she was writing about a secret life of women that males are unaware of. That is a very current reading since gender is a topic that is explored at depth in much of late 20th and early 21st century literature. Emily was writing about 150 years ago and so ideas of gender were different than they are today, yet I still think a more modern reading suits this poem because she clearly states that it is the “maids” who we see dancing in this poem, not the men. Of course, she doesn’t use the word mourn, she writes “morn”, meaning morning or a world of new beginnings where everything is green and lush, but if we think of this in terms of someone escaping into a world of imagination and beauty – and out of the world of men and pain – then I think the possibility that she is hinting at the pain women can feel in a world of men and the desire to live in a world free of that pain is a valid reading here.
Green is a major motif in this poem, she writes (twice) that the image takes place in “May”, she uses the word “green” twice, and also describes the “Chrysolite” which is the name formally given to gems that are green in color. She also hints at the women wearing a laurel of flowers – “last year’s distaff” which is probably some cloth spun last winter which now flowers are woven into it and worn over “summer’s brow”. All this green is related to life and vitality which she describes with the dancers who “dance and game”, “like thee to sing”, “revel in the day”, and “employ their holiday”. The image is pretty much outright hedonistic, but not in a sinful, overabundant way, but one in which celebrates being alive, and being free from the world of “men”.
Yet the mournful quality of the poem also can be found in the second stanza when she explains that these dancers are all dead because “the feet / which walk no more the village street”, and are not found in the “wood” have gone to this new, carefree, and celebratory land where the “stars” “swing their cups of Chrysolite”. This is a beautiful image which combines the image of dancers drinking from their cups, with the green jewels they wear, with that of the stars themselves which glisten as if wet and green in a dreamy haze. This is one of Emily’s more remarkable images I’ve ever encountered.
The final image of the bells ringing brings the poem to a climax of pure ecstasy and profound longing as she listens to the “fantastic bells” ringing out over the landscape in hopes that they are ringing to call her to her own “mystic green”. Yet these church bells are not exactly the Christian church bells because the heaven she is imagining is unlike the heaven of Milton or Dante, it is a riot of life and dance and reminds me of the Maenads who killed King Pentheus because he forbid them from worshiping Dionysus. Even the image of “last year’s distaff” calls to mind the thyrsus they carried and was wrapped in ivy that they would also wear around their head (their “summer’s brow”). This is not the quaint heaven of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, but an explosion of sexuality, riotousness behavior, and pleasure of the utmost ecstasy. This is her own secret world “be men unseen” and is, honestly, a more compelling heaven then anything some old New England (male) preacher was ever going to come up with.
And this secret world she is imagining is worth noting because even though she lived about 150 years ago, she was thinking what people all through history have thought, her inner life, her imagined worlds were just as vibrant as most people’s can be since the dawn of time, but because it’s not socially acceptable to strip off all your clothes, run out onto the May fields, drunken and hand in hand with your friends, and dance under the sun, then these ideas remain hidden, remain secret, and can only manifest themselves in poetry and art.
Yet I think a lot of people would be quite happy if what Emily is suggesting were the reality, not the fantasy.