Emily Dickinson's "Sic transit gloria mundi"

Updated on January 25, 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


Introduction and Text of Poem, "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!


First Movement: "Sic transit gloria mundi"

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: "Put down the apple, Adam"

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 upon an axis"

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: "A coward will remain, Sir"

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.


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