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

Updated on April 14, 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 Commemorative Stamp

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Introduction and Text of "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"

"Singing in Spring" - American Robin

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Buttercup

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Emily Dickinson

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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

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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

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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