‘How the old Mountains drip with Sunset’ by Emily Dickinson is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains do not follow one consistent pattern of rhyme, but that does not mean there are not rhythmic relationships between them.
For example, the second and fourth line of every stanza are half or slant rhymes. (Aside form the sixth stanza which is a full rhyme with “told” and “Gold.”) This means that they partially rhyme, usually with a soft consonant sound such as the in “burn” and “sun” or “full” and “tell.” There is an example of a vowel rhyme, or assonance, in line stanza three with “grass” and “passed.”
One of the most important techniques that Dickinson makes use of is anaphora. This is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line or stanza. In the case of ‘How the old Mountains drip with Sunset’ the phrase “How the…” is used three times in the first stanza. Then the word “How” starts three more lines throughout the rest of the poem. The use of the phrase in the first stanza is particularly impactful. It shows the speaker’s own aw at the majesty of the sunset. She is wondering over the beauty and impossibility of what she is seeing and has seen in the past.
This tone is further emphasized through the use of Dickinson’s characteristic dashes. They appear at the end of more than half of the lines, and feature in the middle of a number as well. Scholars are divided over what this intermittent punctuation could mean. But in this case the dashes are easily read as moments in which the speaker was overwhelmed and as if in respect of nature, had to pause before continuing. It is a way for the reader, speaker, and even Dickinson herself, to gather their thoughts. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of How the old Mountains drip with Sunset
‘How the old Mountains drip with Sunset’ by Emily Dickinson speaks on the sunset and how no one, not even the master painters, could capture it.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the beautiful sights which greet one’s eyes upon viewing a setting sun. It seems to set the trees on fire, and warm the grasses and ferns with a smouldering fire. The entire world is influenced by its colours and its fading light, even the mountains.
When the night finally comes, there is a distinct lack in the sky. It is like an abyss has opened up where there was once a light show. The poem concludes with the speaker describing three master painters of the Baroque and Renaissance period. These men were paralyzed by the beauty of the sunset. They could not get close to depicting its depths and glory.
Analysis of How the old Mountains drip with Sunset
In the first stanza of the poem the speaker begins with three”how the” statements. These are characteristic of the aw the speaker is going to express over the impact of the setting sun. As mentioned in the introduction, the reuse of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line is known as anaphora. Dickinson makes use of this technique throughout ‘How the old Mountains drip with Sunset.’ In the first two lines she describes how the,
Mountains drip with Sunset
How the Hemlocks burn—
There is a dash after the word “burn.” This forces a reader to pause and attempt to imagine the scene she has so far set out. Dickinson is hoping to convey through her speaker the same wonder she felt upon seeing these sights. The sun is so vibrant, its light flows down the mountains like candle wax melting. When it sets low enough, the hemlock trees are backlit and appear as if they are on fire.
She mentions the “Dun Brake” in the third line. This is a type of fern that is “draped in Cinder / By the Wizard Sun.” The word cinder refers to a partially burned coal that is no longer on fire, but is still giving out light and heat. The fern appears similarly to the hemlock tree, it is not as bright, but it still seems to burn.
Dickinson’s speaker refers to the sun as a “Wizard.” This is the only way she can think to accurately portray the events happening around the sunset. They are like magic.
In the second stanza she begins with another “How the” statement. This time she speaks on the “old Steeples” and how they seem to glow red from the light of the sun. She looked upon this scene and interpreted it in a slightly different way though. It seems to her that the church towers are handing the “Scarlet” up to the sun until it is full.
The next two lines are used to describe how hard it is for the speaker to adequately describe everything she sees. She says that she would need the “lip” or beak of a “Flamingo” to be able to speak sufficiently.
The sun is getting closer to the ground now. It,
[…] ebbs like Billows—
Touching all the Grass
Everywhere in the world in which the sun is setting, the grass is warmed by its heat for the last time that day. The “Fire” of the sun is going in and out, flickering and decreasing as it leaves the sky. She describes the passing of the sun over the grass as being similar to a duchess walking past in a “Sapphire” gown. It is dark, yet still beautiful and striking. The world is cast in shadow as the sun slips further down.
At first, the dusk is “small” as it “crawls on the Village.” In a personified form, it appears slowly, and in small parts like a creature of some kind. Eventually it grows larger until the “Houses blot” and are covered in the same sapphire darkness as the grass.
Eventually the only light left comes from the “odd Flambeau” or torch. It is makeshift type of device that is made of wood dipped in wax. There is an important negation in the second half of this line. There are actually “no men” carrying these torches. The light comes entirely from the stars in the sky.
By the time the speaker gets to the fifth stanza of ‘How the old Mountains drip with Sunset’ night has taken over the sky completely. It is touching everything, just as the sunset was previously. The speaker mentions the nests of birds and the kennels of dogs in particular. It is not just human beings who are impacted by the loss of light. The animals have returned to their homes as well. In the direction of the woods, described wondrously in the first stanza, there is only darkness.
It is abyss-like, as if a big dome of darkness has come down on the area, casting it into “Solitude.”This is a very dark image compared to those in the rest of the poem. It casts the night in the familiar role of the villain. With the complete removal of the light, the world is transformed. It is as if all the magic has been sucked out.
In the final four lines the speaker mentions “Guido” and “Titian” as well as “Domenichino.” The latter was an Italian painter of the Baroque period, as was Guido Reni. Titian was, and is now, a better known artist of the Renaissance. These painters are all considered masters of their art, but they were “Paralyzed” when trying to paint the sunset.
The “Visions” of the sun “flitted” past Guido and Titian was never able to tell of their beauty. Domenichino “dropped his pencil” when he attempted to depict the sun as he was overcome “with Gold.”