Emily Dickinson's "Frequently the woods are pink"

Updated on April 14, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text "Frequently the woods are pink"

Emily Dickinson's "Frequently the woods are pink" plays out in three quatrains. Each quatrain presents a unique movement of the poem's theme which sets out to reveal a changing landscape from spring to winter.

The unfortunate error in terminology may likely be excused. The terms "rotation" and "revolution" for the movement of the Earth have become interchangeable in modern parlance, and Dickinson's poem seems to reveal that the same interchangeable usage was in effect in her day and age.

Frequently the woods are pink

Frequently the woods are pink —
Frequently are brown.
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town.
Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see —
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be —
And the Earth — they tell me —
On its Axis turned!
Wonderful Rotation!
By but twelve performed!

Reading of "Frequently the woods are pink"

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

Despite a slight scientific error, Dickinson's "Frequently the woods are pink" offers a marvelous little jaunt around the Sun without leaving the Dickinson estate.

First Movement: The Colorful Changing Woods

Frequently the woods are pink —
Frequently are brown.
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town.

The speaker in Dickinson's "Frequently the woods are pink" begins by reporting that often the woods behind where she lives look pink, which, no doubt, indicates spring with trees that open up in the springtime into blossoms and then moving into summer replace the blossoms with leaves.

Then later the leaves turn brown, and after they leave the trees, that is, the trees "undress" in autumn, they reveal further brown because only the trees trunks and naked branches are visible.

Second Movement: The Head of a Bird

Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see —
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be —

The speaker reveals that she has frequently observed a bird's head as she peered into the frequently changing woods. But then later when she looked, she could detect merely a "cranny" or empty space where that bird's head had been appearing. The word "crested" identifies the head as bird's head without the speaker having the employ the word, bird.

The word, "cranny," indicates how small a space the head of a bird would have occupied. The report of the viewing a bird's head and then viewing its former space moves the poem's theme from merely a seasons poem. The speaker could likely observe birds in the woods anytime of year.

Third Movement: Changing of the Seasons

And the Earth — they tell me —
On its Axis turned!
Wonderful Rotation!
By but twelve performed!

In the final movement, the speaker reports the reason for the change in her view, particularly the fact that at times the woods are pink and at other times brown: the Earth has moved through the year changing seasons as it goes; it has revolved around the Sun and completed one revolution, which causes certain areas of the Earth to experience changing landscape.

The speaker is in awe of this marvelous change as the Earth has turned, "On its Axis." She calls this turn "wonderful." And then she claims that only "twelve" had performed this wonderful feat. Of course, those twelve are the twelve months of the year—through that twelve-month period, she has been given the gift of observing a changing landscape that thrills her adventurous soul.

Regarding the scientific error: The Earth rotates on its axis once in 24 hours; it revolves around the Sun once in 12 months. Thus, to be scientifically factual the "Wonderful Rotation!" should be "Wonderful Revolution!" Interestingly, the term "revolution" here in conjunction with "wonderful" might sound political in nature. It is quite possible that Dickinson was satisfied with a slight scientific error to avoid the possibility of being misconstrued.

"By but twelve performed!"

The poem features only twelve lines which probably gave Dickinson great pleasure as she had her speaker quip in the final line of the poem, "By but twelve performed!" Of course, the speaker is referring to twelve months or perhaps twelve signs of the zodiac, but the fact that she has accomplished her little journey around the sun in twelves line likely gave her a bit of joyful mirth.

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

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