Analysis of Emily Dickinson's Poem "Further in Summer Than the Birds"
Emily Dickinson and a Summary of "Further in Summer Than the Birds" (Fr895)
"Further In Summer Than The Birds" is one of Emily Dickinson's nature poems that also relates strongly to religion. After an initial observation of the natural world (insects/crickets) the speaker progresses into the symbolic (Mass, Grace), a common strategy of Emily Dickinson in the majority of her work.
As with many of her poems there are different versions of this one to be seen. In all, she wrote six, variations on a theme, sent to various friends and acquaintances. One is seven stanzas long, another two, but the rest have four stanzas.
- The version shown here is taken from the official Emily Dickinson Museum website, verified by the Boston Public Library, which shows the handwritten manuscript, backed up by notes confirming the poem in a letter dated January 27th, 1866, from Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson, a close friend and editor.
The characteristic short lines, compact form and unusual syntax are in evidence, and it wouldn't be an Emily Dickinson poem without those dashes at the end of some lines. This is just what she intended, as her hand-written manuscripts show.
A pity the first publishers of her collective work chose to alter the form of her poetry, to conform with the times. Later publications however restored the dashes and experimentation and the version shown here has the number Fr895, from R.W. Franklin's edition of her poems, published in 1998.
This version has little punctuation and hardly a connective but enjambment, when a line runs on into the next without pause, occurs now and then to give the poem some fluidity, in contrast to the pause then rush of the lines with dashes. Slant rhyme is also on display.
In this poem, Emily Dickinson reasserts her belief in the sanctity of nature. As she wrote in her letters:
“Flowers are not quite earthly. They are like the Saints. We should doubtless feel more at Home with them than with the Saints of God” (L417).
To Mr Adelaide Hills, Summer, 1874
And again, in an earlier letter:
“I was thinking, today—as I noticed that the supernatural, was only the Natural, disclosed—” (L280).
To T.W. Higginson, February 1863.
There's no doubt she drew much spiritual comfort, as well as poetic source material, from studying nature. To her, flora and fauna were often an expression of grace; she used them metaphorically to enliven her interior religious dramas. Hence the liturgical language—canticle, for example, is a biblical hymn used in a church service.
She seemed to be well aware of the limits of science to fully explain the natural world, seeing nature's enigmas beyond the understanding of humans. This makes her a romantic but not a pure romantic—as well as highlighting the beauty and design she also was aware of the accidental, the offbeat, the random.
The natural world was unpredictable, and instinctively raw, yet always carried within it a religious resonance. Birds become angels for example, Summer has grace. With conventional church-going parents however, this is understandable—her early years were heavily influenced by biblical and religious imagery.
And books such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis helped shape her poetic mindset in later years. Not to mention Nathanial Hawthorne's story The Old Manse (1846), which directly relates to crickets singing in late Summer.
Patrick Keane writes:
“Further in Summer than the Birds” avoids posing a belief in immortality and instead casts nature as an earthly paradise haunted by death. He then reads it as revering “the pathos of mutability, the deeply moving contrast between seasonal return and human transience” (155).
Keane, Patrick J. Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2008.
Emily Dickinson with her quiet, curious and attentive nature, living in such surroundings in then-rural Amherst, would have been acutely aware of the seasonal cycles and the consequences of change for both flora and fauna.
In her poems, themes such as death, beauty and immortality are explored mostly through the focus of the natural world, her search for artistic truth inspired by the humble yet profoundly evocative events going on in grass, tree, air and soil.
Further in Summer Than the Birds (Fr895)
Further in Summer than the Birds –
Pathetic from the Grass –
A minor Nation celebrates
It’s unobtrusive Mass.
No Ordinance be seen –
So gradual the Grace
A gentle Custom it becomes –
Enlarging Loneliness –
Antiquest felt at Noon –
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify –
Remit as yet no Grace –
No furrow on the Glow,
But a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now –
That first line can confuse but it relates to the minor Nation of the third line, which is going further than the birds in its attempt to sing out from the grass.
In other words, the speaker (the poet we presume) has observed that, while the birds are not singing anymore because summer is fading, the insects (crickets most likely) are still at it.
This evokes pity (pathetic) or reflects vulnerability but nevertheless this is a quiet (unobtrusive) celebration, which the speaker deems to be like Mass - the liturgical service which is a serious reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and involves the sacrament and eucharist. Renewal is also a feature, the bread and wine becoming the blood and body of Christ for the present.
So here we have a kind of dying and renewal within nature, the insects acknowledging that the season of summer is passing and they will more than likely die. Despite that, they are heard to celebrate.
They cannot be seen (ordinance is a definite image), and their approach to all this potential change is to be accepting. The use of the word Grace implies a certain peacefulness or humility. It is also a religious term relating to divinely inspired strength.
The insects as they sing become to the speaker more and more lonely. Summer is coming to an end and everything will alter, so as time passes this quality of loneliness will get deeper, wider, bigger and will go on.
The contrast between the seasonal (Nature) and the universal (Spiritual/Religious) is clear throughout this poem. Emily Dickinson wrote her nature poems in an attempt to capture these moments on the edge, when seasons change, for example, the insect song becoming a religious lament.
At noon, an important time for Emily Dickinson—shadows are virtually gone and the power of the sun is at its greatest. The song's sadness is felt most acutely (antiquest) when in late summer the sun begins to lower.
The spectral Canticle gives this stanza a haunting tone. The insects are losing their energy, and will die as summer comes to an end. It is a restful scenario, characteristic of the time.
Note the assonance and resonance....Antiquest felt...low/repose...spectral Canticle...Arise/typify.
Grace is put on the backburner so to speak as summer temporarily is held. This is noon, suspenseful, transition time—the religious language is dropped for something more primitive. Nature is given a mysterious sheen; a Druidic Difference is observed, which relates to pagan times and culture.
Nature's essences were poetic food for Emily Dickinson, she sought to make these permanent in her poems, creating metaphorical scenarios to deepen and alter the sense of the religious significance and also to distance herself from convention.
What Is the Meter in "Further In Summer Than the Birds"?
Further in Summer Than the Birds has that classic Emily Dickinson look on the page—short lines, not much punctuation and those dashes at the end of a line (-) are a complete giveaway. She used lots in just about all of her poems, which were, incidentally, not given titles by the poet.
Each line in this poem is either a tetrameter (8 syllables, four feet, mostly iambic but with some pyrrhics and trochees here and there) or trimeter (6 syllables, three feet).
A closer look will reveal:
Further / in Sum / mer than / the Birds -
Pathe / tic from / the Grass -
A min / or Na / tion cel / ebrates
It's un / obtru / sive Mass.
So, in the first line, we have a trochee in the first foot (DUMda), emphasis on the first syllable, followed by three iambic feet, with a regular daDUM beat, stress on the second syllable.
The rest of the lines are all iambic feet, save, arguably, the third line last foot which is a pyrrhic, no stresses, dadum.
1st stanza: 8686 (tetrameter, trimeter, tetrameter, trimeter)
2nd stanza: 6686
3rd stanza: 6686
4th stanza: 6686
- The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
- The Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2020 Andrew Spacey