Updated date:

Emily Dickinson's "I'll tell you how the Sun rose"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Introduction and Text of "I'll tell you how the Sun rose"

Emily Dickinson's poem "I'll tell you how the Sun rose" (#318 in Johnson) plays out in sixteen lines, featuring her signature slant rimes and a generous sprinkling of dashes. The poem is written as one piece but divides itself topically into four movements.

The first two movements describe how the sun came up on the particular morning of the speaker's choosing, while in the second two movements, the speaker actually dramatizes why she cannot explain how the sun set.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

I'll tell you how the Sun rose

I'll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
"That must have been the Sun"!
But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —

Reading of "I'll tell you how the Sun rose"

Commentary

This poem is dramatizing what the speaker knows about the sunrise but then hazards only a dramatic guess about sunset.

First Movement: Explaining the Unexplainable

I'll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —

The speaker announces that she will be explaining to her listeners, "how the Sun rose." She then through the employment of metaphor likens the sun's rays to ribbons that are released a single ribbon at a time.

The colorful sun ribbons of rays are leisurely released and hover the ocean to a place where the steeples of churches appear to "sw[i]m in Amethyst." The sun's fire then looms upon the blackness, immediately reverting to blue as it takes on a brightness, fully glowing because of the sun. The luminescence of the sun spreads with great haste; thus the speaker compares its speed to the scampering of squirrels, as she calls the event news.

Second Movement: The Ordinary Made Extraordinary

The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
"That must have been the Sun"!

The speaker now asserts that "[t]he Hills untied their Bonnets — / The Bobolinks — begun." Nature is coming alive again while colors may be detected in the faraway hills. Birds have begun their singing.

The speaker's reaction is such that it would make it seem she is seeing this event for the first time. She muses and quotes herself breathlessly, 'That must have been the Sun'!" The speaker had created her drama using ordinary items from her environment which she makes extraordinary in her reporting.

Third Movement: A Forceful Drama

But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —

The speaker then envisions her situation to be nearer to sunrise than to sunset. This idea, of course, is merely fictional, but it offers her the ability to create her drama of how the sun rises. She knows she cannot explain scientifically such an event, but she can forcefully and dramatically imagine it.

So explain sunset, she imagines she can see "a purple stile" with little Chinese children climbing on it. Those children are likely just going home from a day of school or tending sheep.

Fourth Movement: The Cover of Darkness

Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —

The children have climbed to the other side of the stile, an event that signaled the sun's lowest point just as it then vanishes from sight. A shepherd or perhaps even a churchman secures the gate then leads the flock of sheep or perhaps children away from that area.

Because darkness is now hovering thick, the speaker cannot offer any images for what may be happening next. The speaker's lack of knowledge about sunset is reflected in her word choices which are much less certain than her drama about how the sun rises.

The volume I use for my commentaries on the poems.

The volume I use for my commentaries on the poems.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles