Emily Dickinson's "The Robin's my Criterion for Tune"

Updated on February 1, 2018
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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

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Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—"

With pride of place, Emily Dickinson's speaker in "The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—" dramatizes the natural creatures who flourish where she lives. In her neck of the woods, people see "New Englandly." In seventeen well crafted lines, the speaker offers a glimpse of what seeing "New Englandly" looks like as she compares that view to other spots about which she is aware.

Dickinson often speaks through created characters, but in this one she speaks as a New England born and bred resident who not only justifies seeing "Provincially" but also shows that being herself can result in a splendid vision. As she compares her discernment to the "Queen," she allows her perspective to reign supreme.

285 The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—

The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—
Because I grow—where Robins do—
But, were I Cuckoo born—
I'd swear by him—
The ode familiar—rules the Noon—
The Buttercup's, my Whim for Bloom—
Because, we're Orchard sprung—
But, were I Britain born,
I'd Daisies spurn—
None but the Nut—October fit—
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit—I'm taught—
Without the Snow's Tableau
Winter, were lie—to me—
Because I see—New Englandly—
The Queen, discerns like me—
Provincially—

Reading of "The Robin's my Criterion for Tune"

American Robin

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Buttercup

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Commentary

Emily Dickinson famously referred to her and her family's vision as "seeing New Englandly." For her speaker in "The Robin's my Criterion for Tune," that kind of vision has no negative nuance of provinciality.

First Movement: Where Robins Reign

The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—
Because I grow—where Robins do—
But, were I Cuckoo born—
I'd swear by him—
The ode familiar—rules the Noon—

The speaker begins by asserting that because she was born, raised, and still resides where robins reign, she therefore naturally chooses the robin to speak for her as her birdsong of choice. And she has no difficulty admitting her bias for robins, as she explains that if she had been born where the "Cuckoo" lives, the cuckoo would have become her "criterion" for judging "tunes."

The speaker would be swearing by cuckoos instead of robins had she been born among them. But for this speaker, the robin's "ode" is familiar and she considers the robin to be the ruler of "Noon."

Second Movement: Partial to the Buttercup

The Buttercup's, my Whim for Bloom—
Because, we're Orchard sprung—

Because the speaker lives on a large piece of land with several acres and a lovely standing "Orchard," she is welcomed in spring to beauty by the "Buttercup." Thus she finds her eye partial to that lovely little flower.

Third Movement: British and the Nut Tree

But, were I Britain born,
I'd Daisies spurn—
None but the Nut—October fit—
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit—I'm taught—

The speaker now explains that had she first seen life in Britain, she probably would not care for daisies; she would spurn them. Instead of daisies she would appreciate the nut tree. She suggests that what she has heard is that the nuts dropping in October helped hurry the year along.

The speaker alerts the reader to the fact that she has been "taught" these things about other places. Thus, she cannot swear by their accuracy, only her own reaction to the second-hand information.

Fourth Movement: Snow for True Winter

Without the Snow's Tableau
Winter, were lie—to me—
Because I see—New Englandly—
The Queen, discerns like me—
Provincially—

Finally, the speaker concludes that in winter she must have snow for winter to be authentic for those who see and live New Englandly. She knows from reading books in geography that some places on Earth do not have snow in winter. The white powdery precipitation does not even fall in certain places in her own country.

The speaker is aware that the term "provincial" is often applied to folks who are uneducated, perhaps even boringly unsophisticated. She knows that those terms do not apply to her. She is well read, she thinks deeply, and she has the great ability to describe her environment with fascinating details. She is capable of deriving meaning from the relationships she observes.

However, if she must be considered a rustic provincial, she can attest to the fact even "the Queen" sees only that which surrenders her. The speaker thus can rely on being in good company with her provinciality. She knows that at least she does observe with appropriate discrimination.


Snow Scene MA 1800s

Source

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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