Emily Dickinson's "Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine"

Updated on April 14, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of "Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine"

In The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited and returned to Dickinson's idiosyncratic style by Thomas H. Johnson, the first poem sports a whopping 40 lines of 20 riming couplets. It is Dickinson's longest published poem and departs in style greatly from the remaining 1,774.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The poem opens with an invocation to the muses, but then instead of splitting into quatrains, which most of Dickinson's poems do, it sits in one lump chunk on the page. Gone is her Germanic style capitalization of nouns and her liberal sprinkling of dashes; although she does manage to insert a couple of dashes into the final three lines!

Emily's speaker is addressing a young man, exhorting him to select a sweetheart and marry her. The main theme of this poem, then, plays out similar to the Shakespearean "Marriage Sonnets," in which the speaker also is urging a young man to marry. However, instead of the urgent seriousness of the Shakespearean sonnets, Dickinson's poem is a playful Valentine.

According to Richard B. Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson, that young man is Elbridge Bowdoin, who served as a partner in Emily's father's law office. Emily's Valentine poem, sent in 1850 with the return of a book to Bowdoin, may be seen as flirtatious; however, Bowdoin did not seem to notice or anyway spurned the advice of the poem, remaining a bachelor for life.

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!

Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap'st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There's Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower —
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum —
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

The first poem in Emily Dickinson's Complete Poems is a Valentine aimed at persuading a young man to marry and is quite atypical of the poet's style in her canon of 1,775 poems.

First Movement: Invocation to the Muses

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!

Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.

The ancient epics of Homer and Virgil begin with an invocation to the muse, wherein the speaker asks for guidance as he narrates his tales of adventure. In her Valentine poem, Emily Dickinson has playfully added an invocation to all nine muses to help her with her little drama aimed at the young man for the Valentine season.

Dickinson has her speaker command all nine muses to wake up and sing her a little ditty that she may relay to inflame her Valentine's heart to do as she requests. She then begins by describing how things of the earth all come in pairs. One part of the pair seeks and unites with the other: the damsel is courted by the "hopeless swain" and there is whispering and sighing as a "unity" brings the "twain" together.

Second Movement: Earth Creatures Pair Up

All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.

After alluding to a human pair, the speaker then narrates her observation that everything on this earth seems to be courting its mate, not only on dry land but also in the "sea, or air." In the next twenty or so lines, she supplies an abundant sampling of things of the earth that pair up. She exaggerates for comedic affect that God has made nothing in the world "single" except for the target of her discourse, who is the young man.

The speaker then tells the young man that the bride and bridegroom pair up and become one. Adam and Eve represent the first pair, and then there is the heavenly united pair, the sun and the moon. And those who follow the precept of coupling live happily, while those who avoid this natural act end up "hanged on fatal tree." Again, she is exaggerating for the fun of it!

The speaker then assures the young man that no one who looks will not find. After all, the earth as she has said, was "made for lovers." She then begins her catalogue of earth things that make up the two part of a unified whole: the bee and flower marry and are celebrated by a "hundred leaves." In two masterful lines, the speaker creates a metaphorical and symbolic wedding of bee and flower:

The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves

The speaker continues the catalogue of earth things that make up a unified pair: the wind and the boughs, the storm and the seashore, the wave and the moon, night and day. She sprinkles in references to the human realm with such lines as, "the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son," "The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride," and "Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true."

With the line regarding the worm wooing the mortal, the speaker, similar to the Shakespearean speaker, is reminding her target that life on this planet does not last forever, and each human physical encasement is subject to death and decay. It is because of this plight that she is urging the young man not to allow his life to speed by without fulfilling his duty as part of a unified couple.

Third Movement: Thus It Follows That

Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap'st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?

Now, the speaker announces what has to happen because of her description of the way life goes "on this terrestrial ball." The single man must be brought to justice. The speaker then remarks bluntly, "Thou art a human solo," along with a melancholy description of unhappiness that being alone can bring. She rhetorically asks if he does not spend many hours and sad minutes of reflecting on this situation.

Of course, she is implying that she knows he does wallow in this sorrowful state, and thus she has the antidote for eliminating all the miserable melancholy. She will turn his melancholic "wailing" back into "song." If only he will follow her sage advice, he will become the happy soul he wishes to be.

Fourth Movement: A Shakespearean Command

There's Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower —
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum —
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

The speaker now names six young damsels—Sarah, Eliza, Emeline, Harriet, and Susan; she refers to the sixth young damsel—herself—without naming her, only that she is "she with curling hair," The speaker opines that any one of these young ladies is fit to become a valuable partner for her solo, sad, single young man.

The speaker commands the young bachelor to choose one and take her home to be his wife. In order to make that demand, she creates a little drama by having the ladies situated up in a tree. She commands the young man to climb the tree boldly but with caution, paying no attention to "space, or time."

The young man then is to select his love and run off to the forest and build her a "bower" and lavish upon her what she wishes, "jewel, or bird, or flower." After a wedding of much music and dancing, he and his bride will flit away in glory as they head home.

Emily Dickinson's Titles


Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

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.

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.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the 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 publicans 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.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      10 months ago from U.S.A.

      Louise, thank you for your comment. Hope all is well with you.

      Do you mean you never heard of that Emily Dickinson poem before? Surely you've heard of Emily Dickinson. That poem does not appear widely. Likely because it was a Valentine note and it does depart drastically from her more mature works. That poem is a bit frivolous and flirtation but it does reveal a very advance skill set that served her well in her writing life. Most of her poems are quite short and a title would not really add much to their achievements.

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      10 months ago from U.S.A.

      I think Emily was shy when facing people in person, but when it came to expressing herself in her creative writings, she could be quite extroverted. Also, she was only about 19 when she penned this cheeky piece. It does seem that she was trying to urge Mr. Bowdoin to court her; her father was not pleased with her sending this missive. She likely turned more inward after this blatant rejection and likely the stern upbraiding by her father.

      Thank you for your comment, Natalie!

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 

      10 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Another great article with interesting commentary. Even though the poem us a bit lighthearted compared to her other poems this has always been one of my favorite. Is it believed she?was trying to get that young man to court her ? Whether her or not it seems quite forward for a woman to write such a poem to a man. I always had the impression that Dickinson was shy and introverted but this suggests otherwise. Thanks for another thought provoking article!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      10 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I've never heard of Emily Dickinson before, but I love the poem. Strange that she never gave any of her poems titles. Interesting fact.

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