Today — now that we have entered the dark of the year — we will look at a poem on snow by Emily Dickinson.  If we consider the position and presumed tasks of women in her day (1830-1886), we should not be surprised if it then reads as a “feminine” poem.

Let’s examine it part by part:


It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.

The snow falls slowly, like flour falling through a leaden — meaning heavy and slow here — sieve or sifter.  One may also think of “leaden” as referring to the grey color of the sky from which the snow falls.  Thus the poem begins with an image well-known to women, the sifting of flour for baking.

The snow — like fine white flour — “powders all the wood” — it covers the trees in the forest with whiteness.  It also fills the “wrinkles of the road” — the ruts and highs and lows and wagon and buggy tracks — with “alabaster” wool — meaning wool that is very white.  Alabaster is a translucent white stone, but it is being used as an adjective here to mean “pure white.” Dickinson is likening the falling flakes of snow to tiny tufts of pure white wool.  That is again something with which women of the 19th century would have been very familiar, from their spinning and weaving and related household tasks.

It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.

Likely still thinking of the snow filling “wrinkles,” Dickinson says that it “makes an even face” of the mountains and the plain — that is, the hills and the flat areas below, smoothing them, making an “unbroken forehead”  — that is, a wide smooth area — from East to West.  We see in this the preoccupation of many women of the time with having a smooth and pale complexion — something Dickinson uses here to poetic advantage.

It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil

On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.

The wide, flat expanse of snow reaches all the way to fence, and slowly “wraps” it — that is, begins to cover it rail by rail, until it is “lost in fleeces” that is, obscured by the whiteness of the deep snow, which Dickinson again here likens to wool — a “fleece” is the wool taken from a sheep or goat.

The snow “flings a crystal veil” — that is, it covers as if with a translucent white cloth — the stumps of trees, the stacks  — perhaps of hay left out, and of other things — and the stems of plants.  She calls this area “the summer’s empty room,” because it is the fields and gardens empty and flat after the harvest.  She describes it as “acres of seams where harvests were” — that is, the rows of stubble (now covered by snow) where crops once grew, which she likens to the long seams made by women in their sewing.  And she adds that if it were not for these remaining traces of harvest, there would be no record — no evidence — of the crops that had grown there in summer; they would be “recordless,” without evidence or remembrance that they had once been.

It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

The snow surrounds the bases and joints of posts, creating what Dickinson likens to cloth “ruffles,” such as might be found on the “ankles of a queen.”

The last line is a bit tricky, and rather ambiguous at first sight.  Dickson has spoken of the snow ruffling the “wrists of posts,” then says it

…stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

Grammatically, “its artisans” must refer to the artisans of the snow, but who or what are they?  The best explanation I have seen is that the “artisans” are the falling snowflakes, which vanish like ghosts when the snow stops falling, as though they had never been in the air.  But their work — the white covering of hills and fields and posts — is left behind.  The creators are no longer seen — having disappeared into the creation.

It is not a perfect poem, and certainly far from the best poem one might find on the subject of snow.  Dickinson greatly mixes her metaphors, from baking to cosmetics to sewing and costuming, but it does create a poem to which a woman of her day could easily have related because of the familiar allusions to household tasks and personal grooming interests.



Anyone familiar with English literature and with history will know the term “Tyrian purple.”  This purple color was once the prerogative of royalty, thus the expression “to the purple born,” which we can trace back to the Byzantine Greek expression porphyrogennetos.

We find a variant of that word — Porphyrogene — in Edgar Alan Poe’s rather creepy poem The Haunted Palace:

Wanderers in that happy valley,
   Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
   To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well-befitting,
   The ruler of the realm was seen.

Emily Dickinson, who was fond of the color purple, mentions

An altered look about the hills —
A Tyrian light the village fills —

Reference to ancient royal purple — Tyrian purple — pops up in innumerable books and contexts.  Tyrian purple has been a part of our history since ancient times.  In fact our English word “purple” itself comes originally from the Greek porphyra, the name for the pigment we call Tyrian purple (as well as the mussel from which it was made).

All of this is just a preface to telling you that yesterday I was saddened to read in The Guardian that the shellfish used in ancient times to make the dye Tyrian purple (so called from the ancient city of Tyre) has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean due to the rise of sea temperature caused by climate change.  It is just one worrisome sign among a multitude of troubling evidence that the world has entered precarious and dangerous times environmentally and climatically.

Here is the link to the article:







Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”


Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.



In spite of her cleverness and uniqueness, I have never been very fond of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, though I respect it for what it is.  I know she has earned her own place in the history of poetry, but I find her in general too abstract — too much living in her mind — which is no doubt due in part to her rather reclusive and withdrawn lifestyle.  One cannot help but be impressed, however, by her insistence on the right to her own individuality.

English: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dicki...
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I would like to discuss one of her “didactic” poems.  A didactic poem is one that has teaching as its purpose rather than aesthetic pleasure alone.  And what this poem teaches is very important.  It is called Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails. 
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

To me, the chief application of this poem is to the distinction between the thoughts and beliefs and actions of the masses in contrast to those of the individual.

It is all too common in human history, that when the majority of a society were set on a given course of belief or action, any individual who spoke out against it did so at his or her own risk.

We can trace this lesson back far in human history.  The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for “corrupting the youth” and “impiety.”  His method of reasoned questioning and its results ran contrary, so the authorities held, to the best interests of the people of Athens.

There are countless examples of the persecution of individuals who have held opinions contrary to those of the dominant religion, particularly when that religion had (or has) strong state or political support.

However, many of the great advances of humankind have come about precisely because of individuals who held opinions contrary to those held by the masses in general.  We need only recall Galileo, who found by observation that the traditional view of the earth being the center of the Solar System was quite mistaken; and Charles Darwin, whose investigations revealed unquestionably that all creatures were not created in a few days time a few thousand years previously, but instead had evolved from lower forms of life over eons of time.

Then too, there were those like the Quaker John Woolman, who spoke out very early against the abomination of slavery.  And there were the women who first began speaking for the right of women to vote, and often suffered terribly for it.

One can think of innumerable causes in which individuals stood against the majority, much to the eventual benefit of society.  But for those few who speak out, life can be very difficult.  They are often stigmatized as radical or as mad.  In the Soviet Union and Communist China, one way of treating dissidents has been to remove them from society and shut them away in psychiatric wards, as though they were mental patients.

Dickinson points out in her poem, however, that the madness of such people is often actually the most heavenly of common sense, to the “discerning eye,” that is, to those who can see clearly and rationally, distinguishing what is real from what is merely illusion  and mass opinion.

She tells us further that “much sense” can be “the starkest madness,” that is, what the majority finds sensible and “true” can be the plainest, strongest insanity.

We do not have to look far for examples of that.  Look at the people of Nazi Germany caught up in the idolization of Hitler and his lunacy.  It was very risky to take an individual position then against the position of the masses.  Look at the American South at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and how those who spoke in favor of equal rights did so at peril of their lives.

It still goes on today.  Those holding a view different from that of the masses, particularly in any matter relating to politics or religion, are often stigmatized, stereotyped as “crazy” in order to discredit their ideas and push them out of the public mind and view.  But it is often precisely these individuals, who think for themselves and not by what everyone else is saying and doing, who lead humankind forward in sudden, bold steps.

Individualism in thought has always been, and still is, in some societies, dangerous.  Whether someone is perceived as sane or mad can depend on whether his or her views fit those of the majority or not:

’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.

It is the majority — that is, the beliefs and will of the majority — that prevail, that have the stronger position.  If the majority decides that supposed witches are to be burned and homosexuals put in prison, or women kept isolated and at home, then that is considered “sane” and all opposition madness or impiety.

’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

So, those who want to be accepted, those who don’t want trouble, know which way the wind blows, as did Dickinson:

Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

Agree with the masses, with those in social, political or religious power, and you are considered “sane.”  But if you “demur,” if you show reluctance or refusal in going along with the accepted belief or behavior, you suddenly become perceived as dangerous, like someone with severe mental illness, and you are “handled with a chain,” treated accordingly.

“Handled with a chain” takes us back to the evil days when the mentally ill could be placed in asylums and chained.

Take the case of Plympton House Lunatic Asylum, in England:

In July 1843 a woman who had given birth to a child but five or six weeks before was found to be confined in ‘a straight waistcoat and chained by the arm and leg to a bench’.  Ten curable patients and two idiots were being looked after by a lunatic who was himself kept in chains to prevent him from escaping.  As if that was not bad enough, later that year the lady mentioned above was found to be chained not only by her leg but by another passing around her waist and an iron ring with two hand locks restraining her hands.  In total, two private patients and nineteen paupers were found to be chained to their beds each night at that time.”

Of course Dickinson’s poem applies also to the person in ordinary society who is “different” in opinions and actions, like Dickinson herself, with her seclusion and her “innovative and unorthodox” beliefs and opinions.  It is likely this smaller scale she had in mind, given that no doubt many in her time and place considered her odd, but it applies as well to the greater scale, in which a person who stands against the prevailing beliefs often pays for it dearly.  And yet it is often these same people who have led humans to transcend pettiness and ignorance and irrationality.

That is why freedom of belief (including freedom from belief) and freedom of speech and expression are so critically important to a free and progressive society.  And we should include in that universal freedom of education — the right of anyone, male or female, to learn to read and write, and to be exposed to all kinds of contrary views and opinions in the open marketplace of ideas.  And of course the right to come to one’s own conclusions and personal beliefs, and to express them freely and openly.