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Emily Dickinson's "Before the ice is in the pools"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson -  age 17

Emily Dickinson - age 17

Introduction and Text of "Before the ice is in the pools"

This poem, "Before the ice is in the pools," is one of Emily Dickinson’s most profound as it reveals the speaker’s experience in mystical awareness. The skill with which the poet has fashioned this time-looping experience unveils the master craftsmanship possessed by this poet. Her ability to unravel webs of time remains one of her chief strengths.

Emily Dickinson likely had the King James Version of the Holy Bible by heart, and in this poem, she employs an allusion to touching the hem of a garment that informs the poem as no other image could do. Her ability to make the ineffable understandable has resulted in one of the most momentous literary accomplishments of all time.

Before the ice is in the pools

Before the ice is in the pools –
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow –

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

What we touch the hems of
On a summer's day –
What is only walking
Just a bridge away –

That which sings so – speaks so –
When there's no one here –
Will the frock I wept in
Answer me to wear?

Reading of "Before the ice is in the pools"

Commentary

With images from the seasons, references to physical activities, and an all-important allusion to the King James Version of the Holy Bible, the speaker in this poem accomplishes the amazing feat of revealing the fact that she has undergone a mystical experience that will, in fact, change her life.

First Stanza: Before Winter

Before the ice is in the pools –
Before the skaters go,
Or any check at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow –

The speaker begins by delineating a period of time that is some time before winter, when pools of ice form in the New England freeze, and when people go skating on those blocks of ice. She also describes that before-period as a time before nighttime will find snowflakes landing on the faces of the skaters. Thus, the speaker has referenced quite down-to-earth, physical images that any New Englander, nay any citizen residing north of the Mason-Dixon line, would have experienced.

So before all of those events take place, some momentous event is likely in the offing. The reader, at this point, will suspect s/he is being led to some occurrence that the speaker has experienced and found amazing. Such suspicions come from even any cursory acquaintance with this particular poet, who fashions her speaker to deliver mysterious, minimally phrased, and very often mystical messages.

Second Stanza: Something Wonderful Will Happen

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

The speaker continues with her insistence that this special event will happen—or has happened—before the winter season. That targeted period of time remains, apparently while the fields planted in crops will still be flourishing and before "the Christmas tree" has begun to decorate for that most important winter holiday, featuring the Christmas season.

Unexpectedly, the speaker then reveals her claim of amazement: "[w]onder upon wonder / Will arrive to me!" The speaker conflates time that would bamboozle readers, coming from any less skilled craftsman. At first, it seems that she is referring to some even that occurred before winter, but then she seems to be stating that the event has not yet occurred but "will arrive to [her]." The reader now seems to understand that whatever this momentous event is it has not actually happened yet.

Third Stanza: Touching the Hem of Sacredness

What we touch the hems of
On a summer's day –
What is only walking
Just a bridge away –

The speaker now offers two "what" clauses that set up the situation that caused this momentous event. She generalizes the situation, though, claiming that what "we" do causes certain things to happen. What we do in summer will affect what we do in the seasons that follow. The speaker is guiding the reader to visually experience a metaphoric likeness of what happened in her mind.

The allusion to touching the hems echoes touching the hem of the garment of a sacred personage. For example, in the King James Version of the Bible, the line, "And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment" (Matthew 9:20) features the act of touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. It is without a doubt that Dickinson is alluding to that singular event of hem touching in her line, "what we touch the hems of." Just as the woman experienced a mystical healing at the mere touch of Jesus’ garment, the speaker will—or has already—experience(d) such a mystical event by touching the hem of a "summer’s day."

By personifying a summer day, the speaker allows the reader to visualize the experience of a mystical visitation. This particular being who like the mystery and beauty of a summer day, however, is walking or exists over the bridge between the physical and astral worlds. What we visualize on this physical level of being influences what may appear across the heavenly "bridge." The place and time that is playing out beyond that bridge cannot be known, except by deep intuition and special visitation by angelic beings who inhabit that astral, mystical region.

Fourth Stanza: Remaining Humble

That which sings so – speaks so –
When there's no one here –
Will the frock I wept in
Answer me to wear?

The speaker has now revealed that she has experienced a mystical union with the Divine Reality, but she needs to put an even finer point on her revelation. Thus, she claims that something so beautiful the sings also speaks, and this Entity speaks to her when she is alone—in quietness and stillness, the only time that she can feel her soul unity with the Divine Creator—reflecting the biblical injunction, "Be still, and know that I am God" (KJV Psalm 46:10).

The speaker then asks the question, will she remain worthy of such an experience as the seasons wear on. She reveals that she "wept" upon experiencing this divine bestowal of enlightenment and grace, and she now wonders if it occurs to her again. The reader will remember that the speaker has already claimed that such experience "will" remain hers, when she claimed "[w]onder upon wonder / Will arrive to me!"

Now the speaker backtracks a bit wondering if she can again bear that same experience as when she first wept at its arrival. Such an apparent contradiction, however, becomes little more than a paradox upon further thought. Of course, such a daunting, revealing experience would give one pause to wonder it will come again. Her earlier effusion merely demonstrates the positivity of mind and heart that the mystical experience encourages, but upon further reflection because she continues to reside upon the mud ball of a plant, she must retain a certain level of skepticism in order to remain humble enough to even deserve the continuation of such mystical visitation.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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