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Emily Dickinson's "The Guest is gold and crimson"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson

Introduction and Text of "The Guest is gold and crimson"

Within her collection of some 1,775 poems, Emily Dickinson has included at least 22 that focus on the diurnal phenomena known as "sunset." So fascinated by the act was the poet that she dramatizes it in many colorful outpourings.

In "The Guest is gold and crimson," the speaker personifies "sunset" as a visitor who comes to town "at nightfall," and he visits everyone in town as he "stops at every door." And then the speaker follows the guest as though he were a bird moving beyond her own town and territory to other shores.

The Guest is gold and crimson —

The Guest is gold and crimson —
An Opal guest and gray —
Of Ermine is his doublet —
His Capuchin gay —

He reaches town at nightfall —
He stops at every door —
Who looks for him at morning
I pray him too — explore
The Lark's pure territory —
Or the Lapwing's shore!

Commentary

This colorful poem is dramatizing sunset as a guest who visits every door, every day. This poem functions as a riddle, as the speaker never names the subject she is describing.

First Movement: Elemental Coloration in the Heavens

The Guest is gold and crimson —
An Opal guest and gray —

The speaker describes the subject of her drama by stating the colors of sunset. Readers will immediately recognize the colors of "gold and crimson" as the remarkable duo of hues that accompany the onset of the setting of the sun. Of course, depending on the atmospheric accumulation of elements, those golds and crimsons may blend in outrageous ways that may put the viewer in mind of classic paintings by famous artists.

That those golds and crimsons come against the background of the sky results in an accompanying guest who is "Opal" as well as "gray." The blue of the sky is influence by the golds and appears opalescent against a darkening or grayed out appearance.

At the opening scene, the speaker does not intrude upon her drama, except to state in definitive descriptors what she has actually observed from her own point of view. As she colorizes the scene, she offers her audience the room to blend those colors to their own experiences.

Second Movement: A Dandy Caller

Of Ermine is his doublet —
His Capuchin gay —

The speaker continues her description of the guest, who now resembles a gentleman caller, wearing a close-cropped jacket with a fur trim, and over it all he sports a lively colored cape. Thus, sunset has now been identified as a guest, who is a man dressed rather dandily.

Again, the textures along with colors allow her audience to envision the broad sky turning all mixtures of hues as the sun begins to close its eye on the speaker's part of the earth. The speaker's world is becoming dark, but not without a dramatic play of wild and glorious events happening all around the daystar as it takes its leave at nightfall.

Third Movement: An Omnipresent Visitor

He reaches town at nightfall —
He stops at every door —

Now this gentleman caller, this magnificently dressed guest, appears at nightfall. This guest has a delicious yet totally variant habit of not only visiting people in the town whom he knows, but he also visits every household as he "stops at every door."

The marvelously arrayed guest is visible to everyone, everyday. The speaker must be so enthralled to describe such a magnanimous and generous visitor. This fine gentleman appears all gloriously decked out and performs his drama for all to enjoy.

Fourth Movement: Funny Speculation

Who looks for him at morning
I pray him too — explore

The speaker then offers a humorous speculation regarding someone who would be foolish enough to try to see this guest in the morning; such a thought is, of course, silly because this guest appears only at night.

However, the speaker thus encourages such a person who has gone looking for this guest in the morning to continue looking, that is, keep "explor[ing]."

Fifth Movement: The Other Side of the Planet

The Lark's pure territory —
Or the Lapwing's shore!

If one by chance, after much exploration, happens upon the "Lark's pure territory," or around the Australian continent, one might catch a glimpse of this quest. Morning in Australia is, of course, nighttime in USA, New England.

But the speaker's ultimate recommendation is simply to look for this guest on the "Lapwing's shore," likely where she has observed him. Do not go looking for such a remarkable, colorful event anywhere but where you are. And as you find him at nightfall, you will find him to be a constant visitor, who will always astound you with his dramatic appearance.

Emily Dickinson

This photo has been relieved of the scratches that are evident on many of the extant copies on the Internet.

This photo has been relieved of the scratches that are evident on many of the extant copies on the Internet.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publications of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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