A route of evanescenceIn thirty-five words, Emily has 'painted' a picture of a hummingbird every bit as grand and magnificent as that of her artistic contemporary, Martin Johnson Heade (attached at upper right). I love her choice of words in the poems, as they give the reader the sense of rapid motion, bright color, a momentary microcosm of the natural beauty in her backyard, or even your own backyard. Another Dickinsonian trait is her use of alliteration. An "alliterate" poem is a poem that contains the repetition of an initial sound, usually of a consonant or cluster, in two or more words in a line or succeeding lines. In this poem there are three different sets of alliteration occurring. Obviously, the easy one to spot is using the letter "R" with Route, revolving, Resonance, Rush, and Ride. Then there's Blossom and Bush, and in the seventh line, we find the word tum-b-led. Finally, in the last two lines we have Mail and Morning's. This is one terrific alliterative poem!
With a revolving wheel--
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal--
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head,--
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning’s ride--
I think the other nifty quality of this little poem is that her choice of words enable the reader to easily visualize and almost experience the hummingbird's whirring motion and frenetic darting from flower-to-flower with her use of the words, Evanescence, Revolving Wheel (the rapidly revolving wings), and then Rush. It is all so transitory, just like a hummingbird's presence. Also, note that Emily reinforces these qualities of the little hummingbird with her use of the indefinite article "A" to lead each off.
I have to say that the last two lines are still a bit of an enigma to me. I have puzzled over this couplet forever it seems, and I'm still really no closer to convincing myself of precisely what she is alluding to here. I have commonly heard that because the hummingbird is moving so fast on his "route", going from flower-to-flower, that he's like a postman, and that he's bringing the mail from a far, faraway place. But why "Tunis"? Again, I have heard it speculated that Emily is giving a nod to her favorite playwright, Shakespeare, and his play, The Tempest, as a place so faraway that 'Claribel' cannot receive a note from her father 'Alonso' (The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1). Well, I guess it sounds as good as the next theory. I'd love to know your ideas on this couplet.
Finally, I want to just spend a moment and give you a bit of background on the painter, Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), who painted "The Hooded Visorbearer" that I've attached above. Johnson Heade is generally considered a painter of the "Hudson River School", although there are those who think he didn't focus enough on painting landscapes like others in the school. Johnson Heade was obviously fascinated with hummingbirds as he created many, many paintings that included them, and took trips to Central and South America to paint exotic species of hummingbirds in their native habitats. He has a connection to Emily Dickinson too! Johnson Heade had a young and very beautiful protege, Mabel Loomis Todd, who studied art under his tutelage. During the summer of 1882, Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband, David Todd, went to Amherst, Massachusetts, where Mabel eventually entered into an adulterous affair with Emily's older brother, Austin Dickinson. Apparently, Johnson Heade even went up to Amherst later that summer to try and convince Mabel to end the affair, but to no avail. Following Emily's death in 1886, Mabel Loomis Todd helped Thomas Wentworth Higginson edit Emily Dickinson's poems for publication. If you're interested in more of this story, I highly recommend Christopher Benfrey's wonderful book, A Summer of Hummingbirds--Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade (The Penguin Press, 2008).