Emily Dickinson's "Sic transit gloria mundi"

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 Sic transit gloria mundi"

Similar to poem #1 in Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poem of Emily Dickinson, poem #3 "Sic transit gloria mundi," stands as a rather lengthy poem by Dickinsonian standards, and it is also a Valentine, sent to William Howland, a law clerk in her father's office.

This poem was published in the Springfield Republican on February 20, 1952. Two years earlier, she had sent a Valentine message, "Awake ye muses nine," to her father's law partner, Elbridge Bowdoin.

Sic transit gloria mundi

"Sic transit gloria mundi,"
"How doth the busy bee,"
"Dum vivimus vivamus,"
I stay mine enemy! —

Oh "veni, vidi, vici!"
Oh caput cap-a-pie!
And oh "memento mori"
When I am far from thee!

Hurrah for Peter Parley!
Hurrah for Daniel Boone!
Three cheers, sir, for the gentleman
Who first observed the moon!

Peter, put up the sunshine;
Pattie, arrange the stars;
Tell Luna, tea is waiting,
And call your brother Mars!

Put down the apple, Adam,
And come away with me,
So shalt thou have a pippin
From off my father's tree!

I climb the "Hill of Science,"
I "view the landscape o'er;"
Such transcendental prospect,
I ne'er beheld before!

Unto the Legislature
My country bids me go;
I'll take my india rubbers,
In case the wind should blow!

During my education,
It was announced to me
That gravitation, stumbling
Fell from an apple tree!

The earth upon an axis
Was once supposed to turn,
By way of a gymnastic
In honor of the sun!

It was the brave Columbus,
A sailing o'er the tide,
Who notified the nations
Of where I would reside!

Mortality is fatal—
Gentility is fine,
Rascality, heroic,
Insolvency, sublime

Our Fathers being weary,
Laid down on Bunker Hill;
And tho' full many a morning,
Yet they are sleeping still,

The trumpet, sir, shall wake them,
In dreams I see them rise,
Each with a solemn musket
A marching to the skies!

A coward will remain, Sir,
Until the fight is done;
But an immortal hero
Will take his hat, and run!

Good bye Sir, I am going;
My country calleth me;
Allow me, Sir, at parting,
To wipe my weeping e'e.

In token of our friendship
Accept this "Bonnie Doon,"
And when the hand that plucked it
Hath passed beyond the moon,

The memory of my ashes
Will consolation be;
Then farewell Tuscarora,
And farewell, Sir, to thee!

Emily Dickinson at 17

Source

Commentary

Emily Dickinson sent this poem, "Sic transit gloria mundi," as a Valentine message to William Howland, who served as a law clerk in her father's office.

First Movement: Allusive Quotations

"Sic transit gloria mundi,"
"How doth the busy bee,"
"Dum vivimus vivamus,"
I stay mine enemy! —

Oh "veni, vidi, vici!"
Oh caput cap-a-pie!
And oh "memento mori"
When I am far from thee!

Hurrah for Peter Parley!
Hurrah for Daniel Boone!
Three cheers, sir, for the gentleman
Who first observed the moon!

Peter, put up the sunshine;
Pattie, arrange the stars;
Tell Luna, tea is waiting,
And call your brother Mars!

The first stanza of the Valentine sounds like a jumble of unrelated thoughts as it begins with three allusive quotations: first, the Latin phrase, "Sic transit gloria mundi," which translates into English as, "So passes away this world's glory." The phrase is used in the ceremony of installing a Pope and likely originated with Thomas à Kempis' "O quam cito transit gloria mundi" (Oh how soon passes away this world's glory) from De Imitatione Christi.

Second, the allusion to the Isaac Watts' poem, "How doth the little busy bee," whose second line finishes the question: "Improve each shining hour." And third, "Dum vivimus vivamus," translation,"while we are alive, let's live," which is thought to serve as an epicurean motto and was employed as a motto by the Porcellian Club at Harvard. The speaker then speaks for herself for the first time in the poem and declares she will stop her enemy, a claim that will leave her listeners a bit stunned.

But then the speaker offers a near repetition of the first stanza's strategy with Latin phrases, along with one French phrase: First, "Oh 'veni, vidi, vici!'," which is the famous declaration made by Julius Caesar after he overcame Pharnaces of Pontus in the Battle of Zela.

Second, "Oh caput cap-a-pie!" with Latin "the head" and French "from head-to-toe." And then the third, "And oh "memento mori," Latin again for "remembering I must die," which makes much sense clamped on to the following line, "When I am far from thee!"

Those first two stanzas of the Valentine demonstrate the varied education of the speaker; she has read and studied enough of Latin and perhaps French to be able to employ quotations from her reading. Likely the only purpose of those quotations is to show off as she flirts with the target of the Valentine.

The speaker then continues to demonstrate her book learning by alluding to a widely published author of the time period, who used the pseudonym, "Peter Parley." Parley published a wide variety of informative tracts primarily for children in the subject areas of science, art, travel, biography, and natural history and geography.

The speaker gives a nod to the American explorer, Daniel Boone, who is most noted for having explored the state now known as Kentucky. The speaker finally offers "three cheer" for the man who first "observed the moon." This last seeming allusion, however, is ludicrous in its assertion; thus the speaker is making a joke which puts all of her earlier allusions in question. Is she really just making fun of received knowledge? Not doubt that is so. And her true purpose, of course, is simply to flirt with a law clerk in her father's office, who likely possesses the ability to recognize many of those allusion and thus understand her little joke.

The final stanza in the first movement plays out in definite sarcastic hilarity, as she commands Peter to "put up the sunshine," while Pattie must "arrange the stars," while alerting "Luna" (the Latin term for "moon") that tea is about to be served, and brother Mars, another heavenly body, should be called.

Thus, the speaker has set the stage for a romp through her fertile mind that she hopes will impress a young man with her vast knowledge, all acquired through book learning, thus she can make fun of it, as if she were saying, look what I can do with bit and pieces of information that has passed before my very fecund imagination!

Second Movement: Continuing Allusion

Put down the apple, Adam,
And come away with me,
So shalt thou have a pippin
From off my father's tree!

I climb the "Hill of Science,"
I "view the landscape o'er;"
Such transcendental prospect,
I ne'er beheld before!

Unto the Legislature
My country bids me go;
I'll take my india rubbers,
In case the wind should blow!

During my education,
It was announced to me
That gravitation, stumbling
Fell from an apple tree!

In the second movement, the speaker continues her allusive jaunt, beginning with Genesis and Adam eating the metaphoric "apple." She tells "Adam," whom she likely is assigning identity with Mr. Howland, the law clerk, to forsake the "apple" that he is already eating and come with her to enjoy an apple from her father's tree. That "pippin" or dessert apple, which is sweeter than ordinary apples, refers to herself; thus, she is the offering from her father's tree that she wishes to give to the target of the Valentine.

Next the speaker intimates that she has read Anna Lætitia Barbauld's "The Hill of Science. A Vision," and again offers a line from an Isaac Watt's hymn, "There Is a Land of Pure Delight."

The speaker then concocts the notion that she has been called to government service, but then immediately descends into a comment about the weather. Finally, she again makes a remark that her education has given her to believe that the man who discovered gravity, only did so because some crazy apple "stumbl[ed]" and "fell from an apple tree!" It must have given her great delight to return again to the "apple" as she completed the second moment of her Valentine.

Third Movement: The Earth Honoring the Sun

The earth upon an axis
Was once supposed to turn,
By way of a gymnastic
In honor of the sun!

It was the brave Columbus,
A sailing o'er the tide,
Who notified the nations
Of where I would reside!

Mortality is fatal—
Gentility is fine,
Rascality, heroic,
Insolvency, sublime

Our Fathers being weary,
Laid down on Bunker Hill;
And tho' full many a morning,
Yet they are sleeping still,

The trumpet, sir, shall wake them,
In dreams I see them rise,
Each with a solemn musket
A marching to the skies!

The speaker now turns to astronomy to report the fact that the earth rotates, an activity that earlier, she opines, was considered to honor the sun. Of course, earthy gymnastics, she now knows, is simply a fact of a neutral science. The sun, only in poetic terms, can be considered to feel honored by the rotating of the earth.

Moving on to some historical information, the speaker reports that Columbus, whom she finds to be brave, went sailing over the sea, and in doing so he let other nation know where the speaker "would reside."

She then lists some definitions of terms: mortality=fatal, gentility=fine. But then she seems to go off track by stating that rascality is heroic, and insolvency is sublime. The two latter claims likely are allusions to the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837, which resulted in a major recession that continued into the mid-1840s.

The speaker then continues with her nods to history, mentioning that their "Fathers" died on Bunker Hill and despite the fact morning still comes upon that hill, they remain sleeping there. But she envisions in a dream that a trumpet wakes those fathers, who rise and march heavenward with their muskets.

Fourth Movement: Remaining Above Ground

A coward will remain, Sir,
Until the fight is done;
But an immortal hero
Will take his hat, and run!

Good bye Sir, I am going;
My country calleth me;
Allow me, Sir, at parting,
To wipe my weeping e'e.

In token of our friendship
Accept this "Bonnie Doon,"
And when the hand that plucked it
Hath passed beyond the moon,

The memory of my ashes
Will consolation be;
Then farewell Tuscarora,
And farewell, Sir, to thee!

In the final movement, the speaker's opening stanza makes a bizarre claim that seems quite opposite of what tradition teaches. She asserts that it is the coward who stays and fights while those who grab their hats and run become the immortal heroes. Likely, she is spoofing the notion that those who run away are more likely to remain above ground than those who remain in battle and continue to engage the enemy.

But before the reader can place much concentration on that thought, the speaker moves quickly on again to state that she must go and perform service to her country. She asks the target of her Valentine to permit her to shed a tear at leaving him behind. She then states that this Valentine is a "token of our friendship." She asks him to accept this "Bonnie Soon," alluding to Robert Burns' "The Banks O' Doon," which features a lament about being left by a sweetheart.

But the token of friendship, this "Bonnie Doon," seems to become a flower as the speaker then asserts that once she is dead and her ashes have "passed beyond the moon," the memory of those ashes will console the Valentine reader. Then abruptly as she draws an end to her missive, by bidding farewell to "Tuscarora" and then to the target of the Valentine, calling him "Sir."

Remembering the playful nature of the poem makes allusions such as Tuscarora, the American Indians who originally resided in the North Carolina area and later were admitted into the New York federation of the Iroquois, a fertile field for varied interpretations. Likely, she's referring to the country and its earlier history, but also it is likely she is being ironic as she surely is when she is bidding farewell to the recipient of the Valentine.

Both Valentine messages were serious although playful flirtations to the young men to which she sent them. The poet possibly hoped to engage each young man in courtship, but quite the contrary actually happened. Both men, Elbridge Bowdoin and William Howland, remained lifelong bachelors.

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

Musical rendition using a portion of Dickinson's lyric

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)