November 8, 2011

The Dickinson Project--Poem No. 1463

Hooded Visorbearer
Our next poem in The Dickinson Project is one of my favorites.  It is a richly complex little gem that really works well on several levels.  Not only does it evoke some beautiful visual imagery, but it is also a bit of a 'head scratcher' too with its enigmatic couplet ending the poem.  This is an excellent example of Emily Dickinson's amazingly powerful control over her use of words.  Here is Dickinson's poem, No. 1463--
A route of evanescence
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--
In 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!

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).



  1. I must admit I hadn't a clue what the poem was about when I read it first. I didn't even connect it to the picture you had there! Silly me.

    But, now, knowing it's a humming bird, I can appreciate this little piece of poetry. I think my favourite line is "And every blossom on the bush/Adjusts its tumbled head,--" I love the way the alliteration works here. The R alliteration didn't really hit home for me, even as I read your passage. However, after I read the lines this way, as it was apparently originally written, the poem sounded a bit more flighty and the R alliteration was like a crisp morning. I could literally hear the humming bird!

    As far as the last two lines go, when I read "The Mail" I immediately thought of those Regency era coaches that would go bowling down dirt roads between English towns and villages. For me the impression is that of the humming bird going so fast that one can see the flowers bow their heads from the rush of wind while the bird flitters by, and then straightening up...really, it's all in a days work!

    I looked up the Tunis allusion. It sounds believable, otherwise Tunis is such random place to pick!

    The tid-bit on the artist is a very interesting one... :D

  2. The mail from Tunis, probably,
    An easy morning’s ride--

    My fledgling thought? Tunis is Tunisia in Africa. Dickinson is suggesting that the hummbird can easily make such a flight in a morning -- from Africa to America. It brings word from the families (of the birds) in America, from Africa.

    Only a thought.

    I love the off-rhyme in head/ride. The sudden change from description of the bird in the first 6 lines, to the final 2 lines, which not only introduce a sudden new rhyme scheme, but are off on a new topic, makes one "feel" the sudden change in direction. It's abrupt at the end, causing the sensation that the bird has suddenly vanished. Fascinating technique, that!

  3. Lovely interpretation, Jillian!...especially about the whole abruptness of the last couple of lines.

  4. I agree, she creates such a sense of movement in so few lines. The picture helped me with the poem. Many thanks