by Emily Dickinson
As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last
To see like Perfidy—
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
The Dusk drew earlier in—
The Morning foreign shone—
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone—
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful—
I have chosen this poem because I am a nostalgic, and especially this year, as summer’s close brings with it the end of my glorious sabbatical. For me, this poem captures the way the endings--of summer, of many things--feel.
I am not a Dickinson scholar. I am much more an ardent admirer. She is, for me, like an idolized but peculiar relative in whose company I long to be, but whom I never understand much better for having spent time with. Sometimes I am utterly unable to make sense of her poems and other times, as in this poem, my whole body understands immediately and intuitively the feeling the poem addresses.
To start, what about that first simile? Summer does creep imperceptibly away. As does grief. But the lessening of grief is a relief—days later we realize we haven’t cried for our lost one. But the creeping away of summer causes a form of grief for the speaker, so the simile is a bit odd. The leaving is the same, yes, but one absence is comfort and the other is not.
Then look at the next choices. “The Summer” is this past particular one, in the past tense where the poem is located (not “a summer”), but not yet, as it later becomes, “our summer.” The verb “lapsed” also works in surprising ways. I misremember this line always as “The Summer slipped away.” But lapsed is so much the better choice, meaning as it does “to fall away by degree” and also a fall from grace. Grace, like “our summer”, will appear much later in the poem. (Not to mention that “lapsed” is sonically more surprising and interesting than the alliterative “slipped” would be; lapsed keeps the “s” sound but pushes it to the middle.)
This slipping, the speaker tells us, was so imperceptible that it couldn’t be a form of betrayal, of “perfidy.” And then she faces the difficult task of describing something she has claimed is imperceptible. If it can’t be sensed or understood, how can it be described? The poem really could be broken into four four-line stanzas. The middle two stanzas are where Dickinson takes on the task of describing the passing of time. “Twilight” begins earlier, “dusk” draws “earlier in”. Such changes are by degree and are subtle; the natural world often moves in time too slow for the human mind to catch it. Only later do we realize the season has shifted. And by that point, it feels a bit like betrayal.
The summer has been a guest, and guests must eventually leave. Her leaving couldn’t really be a surprise. But even so, somehow there is something “harrowing” about the “Grace” that, like a guest, “would be gone.” What might a harrowing grace be? A distressing beauty? A troubled divine love? And summer has become female and ours (“our summer”), personifying and personalizing the loss even more.
The last stanza doesn’t resolve these questions but turns away from them. Summer is perceptible, if her leaving is not, and even without a clear means of transport, she still makes her escape—though it is “light”—into the “beautiful.”
I would never claim to know what Dickinson might have meant by anything, and I am bold in claiming her as a favored, strange auntie. But I understand these last lines somewhere near my solar plexus. We can’t help feeling grief for summer’s passing—for time’s passing—but we also must recognize that such passage provides light and beauty. Even when our hearts protest.