Scholars believe that Dickinson wrote this poem around 1863. In it, she engages with themes that she often explores in her poetry. This includes the beauty and wonder of nature. Dickinson attempts to define what nature is but doesn’t quite succeed.
Nature is what we see Emily Dickinson “Nature” is what we see— The Hill—the Afternoon— Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee— Nay—Nature is Heaven— Nature is what we hear— The Bobolink—the Sea— Thunder—the Cricket— Nay—Nature is Harmony— Nature is what we know— Yet have no art to say— So impotent Our Wisdom is To her Simplicity.
Explore Nature is what we see
‘Nature is what we see’ by Emily Dickinson attempts to define nature and the different ways one might understand it.
In the first lines, the speaker defines nature as something that people can see with their eyes. This includes “The Hill,” or physical landscapes, as well as the time of day (symbolized through “the Afternoon”). She moves on, saying that Nature is also “Heaven” and what we “hear.” She references the call of a bird, the ocean, crickets, and more.
She corrects herself again, saying that nature is the perfect harmony of the balanced world. It’s something that human beings sense but struggle (as Dickinson has proven) to define.
Structure and Form
‘Nature is what we see’ by Emily Dickinson is a twelve-line poem that is written in block form. This means that the poet contained all the lines within a single stanza. There is no single rhyme scheme used throughout the poem, but the poet does use end rhymes several times. For example, “see,” “bee,” “Sea,” and “Simplicity.” The lines vary so much that the rhyme scheme looks like: ABABCADAFAHA.
The main theme of this poem is nature, specifically the power and wonder of nature. The speaker tries to define nature in a few different ways and never manages to settle on a single definition. She speaks about it as something physical and something that’s defined by its unity. But, as she ends the poem, she makes it clear that no one can fully put it into any “art.”
The poet uses a few different literary devices. These include:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “The” starts lines two and six.
- Caesura: an intentional pause in a line. For example, Dickinson uses dashes throughout her poetry, with this poem being a clear example.
- Alliteration: the use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of successive words. For example, “Nay—Nature” starts lines four and eight.
- Enjambment: occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines eleven and twelve.
“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
In the first lines of ‘Nature is what we see,’ the poet tries her first definition of what “Nature” is. She puts the word in quotes in line one, indicating that she’s thinking about the meaning of the word. The poet suggests its literary and metaphysical meaning in the next lines.
She starts by saying that nature is the physical landscape which she represents by saying “The Hill.” It’s also animals and the time of day (“the Afternoon”). But, in the fourth line, she uses the word “Nay,” which starts a new line of thought. Instead of the physical, she now considers nature as “Heaven” and “what we hear.” It’s the sound of a bird calling (the Bobolink is a migrating songbird) and the noise the sea makes.
The use of dashes throughout this poem indicates pauses in the speaker’s train of thought. It also helps create a clear rhythm in which she poses each individual thought she has, creating a list-like collection of ideas and images.
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.
In the next few lines, the speaker adds more sounds that she sees as representing nature. This includes thunder and the “Cricket.” These two very different sounds represent the whole array of noises (peaceful and loud) that one will encounter in the natural world.
The final suggestion the speaker has about nature is that it is “Harmony.” Nature is that which is balanced and beautiful in the world. It’s a concept that people struggle to define (as she’s proven in these lines). No matter the art, it’s impossible to truly “say” what nature is. Human beings are not wise enough to define the simple power and wonder of nature.
The meaning of Dickinson’s poem ‘Nature is what we see’ is that nature is a force that far exceeds humanity’s ability to understand. No matter how long one tries or with which methods, no one will ever fully define all of nature.
The main theme of this poem is the power of nature. The speaker tries to use her art—language—to define the natural world but doesn’t succeed. She jumps from idea to idea, fighting to come up with some combination of words that fully defines nature.
The poem was written in 1863, or around this period. It is not one of her better-known poems, but it does represent some of her favorite subject matter.
The tone of ‘Nature is what we see’ is contemplative and curious. The speaker spends the lines baffled and amazed by nature and trying to figure out how to define it.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Emily Dickinson poems. For example:
- ‘A Light Exists in Spring’ – a poem about how the spring light illuminates everything.
- ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’ – a nature poem in which a male speaker describes encountering a snake.
- ‘A drop fell on the apple tree’ – a joy-filled poem that describes the summer season.