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Emily Dickinson – “When Night is almost done –”

Close attention to the meter in Emily Dickinson’s “When Night is almost done – “ re­veals a tension between the meaning of the words and the mood of the rhythm. First, the poem (#347):

When Night is almost done –
And Sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the Spaces –
It’s time to smooth the Hair –

And get the Dimples ready –
And wonder we could care
For that old – faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –

The base meter of the poem is iambic trimeter – lines 1, 4, and 6 are all follow this meter perfectly. There are a few substitutions in the first six lines – line 2 has a spondee for its second foot (-rise grows), and lines 3 and 5 end with amphibrachs rather than iambs – but mostly she follows the meter closely in the opening lines. In the closing lines, however, Dickinson engages in quite daring metrical variation, and it’s very successful.

Before I get to that, however, I’d like to make some preliminary comments on other formal aspects of the poem. There is an obvious break-point in the poem, the stanza break, and it separates logically two halves of the poem. The first stanza focuses on the end of night and the coming sunrise, while the second stanza turns attention to the ability of night to frighten. This is a logical division, but other aspects of the poem fight against it. Dickinson uses off rhyme within stanzas (near/Hair; care/Hour), but lines 4 and 6 have perfect rhyme (Hair/care). Thus, even though there is a stanza break separating them, there is a close connection between lines 4 and 6. This creates the sense that the entire portion of the poem, from lines 2 to halfway through line 7, is a single entity separate from the rest. The remainder then looks like this:

When Night is almost done –
– faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –

Here we have together all the portion of the poem dealing with the night and its effects. They create an envelope, into which the portion about the sunrise is inserted. For me, at least, this suggests something less essential about the inserted portion. The fact that the night forms an envelope in this fashion keeps our attention focused there, and makes it the aspect of the poem that most lingers. Against this, the sunrise seems of secondary importance.

This sense is, I think, amplified by the metrical variations in the final two lines. Here’s a breakdown of the stress patterns (u = unstressed, – = stressed):

Line 7: u u – – u – –
Line 8: u – u u u –

I’m a bit uncertain about how to break down the feet in these lines. The base of the poem is iambic, which makes me want to read it this way:

Line 7: u u / – – / u – – [pyrrhic, spondee, cretic]
Line 8: u – / u u / u – [iamb, pyrrhic, iamb]

However, both lines contain a dash after the third syllable, and this forced pause leads to a competing inclination to read the lines as each opening with trisyllabic feet:

Line 7: u u – / – u / – – [anapest, trochee, spondee]
Line 8: u – u / u u – [amphibrach, anapest]

I am not sure which reading to choose, though I lean toward the first. In any case, the four stresses in line 7 really slow the line down, especially since they are bunched into a five-syllable span. This breaks up the relatively smooth flow of the preceding five lines, and dims the brightness of the sunrise for the transition back to night.

Then comes the last line, which is just masterful. The presence of only two stresses makes the line seem as if it should be really light. This complements the surface meaning of the words “that frightened but an hour.” They make the line go quickly, as the fright went quickly. But – there are the dashes. Read the line without the dashes, and it is as I just described, light, springy, easy. The first dash, however, inserts a pause right in the middle of its quickest portion (the pyrrhic), more or less eliminating the effect of having a pyrrhic there at all. The second dash, at the end of the line, similarly makes the line heavier. Instead of the satisfaction of a full stop (as one would expect at the end of a light, quick line), the dash forces us to linger with the night and the fright it brings.

The form of Dickinson’s poem thus fights with itself. On the surface, it seems to follow the literal meaning of the words, as seen in the stanza break and the meter, abstractly considered. However, the placement of the dashes and the rhyme scheme contest this obvious reading, showing a darker undercurrent to the poem. They resist the easy solution to the troubles of night that the poems appears to offer – even in the light, the night lingers.