E Emily Dickinson

A Day (I’ll Tell You How The Sun Rose) by Emily Dickinson

‘A Day’ by Emily Dickinson is a lyrical poem describing sunrise and sunset. In a metaphysical sense, it also portrays the beauty of life and the uncertainty of death.

A Day by Emily Dickinson Visual Representation

A Day‘ by Emily Dickinson is a well-known metaphysical poem of the nineteenth century, famous for its double meaning and intellectual metaphors. In a literal sense, A Day‘ describes sunrise and sunset. In a metaphorical sense, it also details the transition from life to death. Moreover, the poem features a child persona, whose innocence and confident tone reveals the beauty of a sunrise.

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
Which 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.

A Day (I’ll tell you how the sun rose) by Emily Dickinson
A Day By Emily Dickinson


Summary

A Day by Emily Dickinson describes the rising and setting of the sun on a literal level while juxtaposing life and death. 

The poem begins with the persona—an unnamed child—confidently describing how the sun rises, and the events that follow this phenomenon. This speaker shows excitement on sighting birds, hills, and the rising sun itself, thus portraying the child’s innocence regarding his/her view of the world. He/she only sees the beauty of life. 

Coming to the metaphorical meaning, the opening stanzas of the poem show the hustle and bustle that comes with living.

As the poem progresses, the child becomes less confident describing a sunset. He/she doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to explain it. Nonetheless, this speaker tells of the purpling of the sky as the sun sets until the sky turns completely dark. This symbolizes the inactivity associated with dying. It also shows the little knowledge living beings truly have about death.

You can read the full poem here.

Speaker

The speaker, or poet persona, in Dickinson’s poem is an unnamed child. He/she begins the poem as if responding to a question. The persona is confident and excited talking about sunrise. However, that confidence wanes when the child describes sunset. Regardless, this speaker’s diction and inherent innocence urge readers to appreciate the beauty of nature. 

Structure and Form

Originally, Emily Dickinson’s poem has two versions. The first has no stanza breaks and is not popularly known.

On the other hand, the second version of A Day consists of four quatrains. The last three quatrains follow an alternate rhyme scheme, where only the second and fourth lines rhyme. In addition, the last quatrain of this lyrical poem has a regular meter, as lines of eight syllables alternate with those having six. Since the first three quatrains have irregular meters and the poem itself has no definite rhyme scheme, A Day is seen as a free verse poem.

Furthermore, several lines in the poem are punctuated with dashes; seemingly random words are capitalized throughout as well. This is a writing style specific to Emily Dickinson. While there is no clear reason behind both peculiarities, the dashes may have been included to indicate pauses when reading A Day aloud.

Lastly, Dickinson never titled A Day.’ Rather, a group of posthumous editors gave her poem its current name: “A Day”. Another title it bears is its first line: “I’ll Tell You How The Sun Rose.” 

Literary Devices

The following literary devices feature in Dickinson’s ‘A Day’:

  • Symbolism: The dominant literary device in Dickinson’s A Day remains symbolism. The entire poem symbolises the transition from life to death. With each stanza, the poet infers the human behaviours associated with life and death, finally implying what awaits after death from her religious perspective.
  • Metaphor: This is the second dominant device in Dickinson’s poem. She uses several direct comparisons to foster relatable imagery. In stanza 1, line 2, she calls sunrays “ribbons”. She refers to the same sunrays as “Yellow boys and girls” in stanza 3, line 3. The “Dominie in gray” in stanza 4, line 2 represents “God” or a religious figure; “flock” refers to humans. Lastly, “evening bars” in stanza 4, line 3 is a metaphor for the end of a day, or the end of life.
  • Simile: An instance of simile appears in stanza 1, line 4, where the “news” of sunrise spreads at the speed of a squirrel’s run.
  • Personification: This is another poetic device in ‘A Day‘. It appears in stanza 1, line 3, where “Steeples”, like human beings, swim; in stanza 2, line 2, where “hills” remove their “bonnets” in the same fashion as women.
  • Alliteration: Alliteration appears in stanza 1, line 3, with the repetition of the “s” sound; also in stanza 2, line 2, where the “b” sound is prevalent.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –

A Ribbon at a time –

The Steeples swam in Amethyst –

The news, like Squirrels, ran –

The poem begins with the speaker narrating to us readers how the sun rises. The persona refers to the sun’s rays as “ribbons”.  The layering of these “ribbons” is a gradual process. But the significance of the eventual sunrise isn’t lost on the world. “The news…” of this phenomenon travels fast. 

The eagerness of the child speaker to talk about sunrise portrays his/her innocent view of the world. This persona cares for the seemingly insignificant things, thus telling readers it’s okay to pause and appreciate the “normal” changes in nature. Like the sunrise. In a metaphorical sense, this stanza also hints at the excitement stemming from the beginning of life (childbirth). 

Additionally, we glimpse Emily Dickinson’s religious background with the mention of “Steeples”, a part of a church building.

Stanza Two

The Hills untied their Bonnets –

The Bobolinks – begun –

Then I said softly to myself –

‘That must have been the Sun!’

This stanza describes the events which occur due to sunrise. The sun illuminates the top of “Hills” and “Bobolinks” (a species of blackbirds) begins to sing. This stanza highlights similarly natural occurrences that seem to respond to the sun rising. It once again focuses on the beauty of nature around us, thus encouraging readers to be more appreciative of them.

The speaker’s awe is apparent in this stanza when he/she exclaims, “That must have been the Sun!” This particular line confirms our speaker is a child, as no adult would need much description to recognize the sun or its rising.

Stanza Three

But how he set – I know not –

There seemed a purple stile

Which little Yellow boys and girls

Were climbing all the while –

In this stanza, the subject matter drifts from sunrise to sunset, and the speaker’s tone from excited to reserved. The child’s confidence wanes since he/she doesn’t know much about sunset. Yet, the persona describes the little they can, more sober than excited.

This stanza is more symbolic than literal, as Dickinson uses it to show the transition from life to death. On a metaphorical level, ‘A Day‘ tells readers how little any living being knows about death. Like the child speaker, humans prefer to talk about more exciting things, and so reserve their thoughts on the dreadful subject.

On the other hand, the literal imagery in this stanza presents the rising sun moving from the East to set in the West.

Stanza Four

Till when they reached the other side,

A Dominie in Gray –

Put gently up the evening Bars –

And led the flock away –

In the final stanza of ‘A Day‘, Emily Dickinson’s faith comes to light. This dominantly symbolic stanza uses Christian references like “flock” and “Dominie in gray” to show the poet’s own view about death. Where a “Dominie in gray” means “God”, and “flock” means human beings, Dickinson believes God leads human beings wherever after they die.

On the other hand, the stanza literally ushers in the evening when the sun finally sets. Due to the inactivity of the time, the speaker’s excitement, at this point, is non-existent. Hence, A Day ends on a sober note.

Themes

Dickinson’s poem explores the beauty of nature from the phenomena of sunrise and sunset. Digging deeper, the poet also examines life, death, and the transition between the two in A Day.’ Another theme is spirituality: a common one among Dickinson’s poems. With references to the “Dominie in gray” and “flock”, Dickinson reveals her Christian faith and the belief that God awaits humans at the end of their lives.

Tone and Mood

The speaker’s tone is confident for the first two stanzas of A Day.’ This stems from his/her sufficient knowledge about sunrise. He/she also maintains their excitement through these stanzas, due to the activity this phenomenon brings. However, the speaker’s tone becomes uncertain for the last two stanzas. This is attributed to his/her insufficient knowledge about sunset. In addition, the persona turns sober, as the excitement which comes with the rising sun disappears.

FAQs

Where did A Day‘ first appear?

It first appeared in the 1890 edition of Poems by Emily Dickinson. As Emily Dickinson died in 1886, it was a posthumous publication.

Why is A Day‘ a metaphysical poem?

Metaphysical poetry uses extended metaphors to relate concrete images to abstract ones. In this sense, A Day is a metaphysical poem as it relates two physical phenomena—sunrise and sunset—to life and death.

Who is Emily Dickinson?

Emily Dickinson is a nineteenth-century American poet who wasn’t as recognized during her time. Although she wrote about 1800 poems, only 10 are known to have been published while she lived. She mostly included her poems in letters she sent her family. Her lack of popularity is often attributed to her being a private person.

Why is A Day‘ a lyrical poem?

A lyrical poem is a short thoughtful piece that features a sole speaker—who may or may not be the poet. The pronoun “I”, as used in lyrical poems, indicates the poet’s persona. On that note, A Day‘—like most of Dickinson’s poems—is a lyric; it expresses a powerful thought from the perspective of a single persona.

Can you call A Day‘ a romantic poem?

Romantic poetry describes nature with the intent to highlight and appreciate its beauty. In this sense, one can call A Day‘ a romantic poem


Similar Poetry

You can read more of Dickinson’s poems here if you enjoyed A Day‘:

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A Day by Emily Dickinson Visual Representation
About
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.
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