The Birds begun at Four o'clock —
Their period for Dawn —
A Music numerous as space —
But neighboring as Noon —
I could not count their Force —
Their Voices did expend
As Brook by Brook bestows itself
To multiply the Pond.
The Listener – was not —
Except occasional man —
In homely industry arrayed —
To overtake the Morn —
Nor was it for applause —
That I could ascertain —
But independent Ecstasy
Of Universe, and Men –
By Six, the Flood had done —
No Tumult there had been
Of Dressing, or Departure —
And yet the Band – was gone —
The Sun engrossed the East —
The Day Resumed the World — controlled
The Miracle that introduced
Forgotten, as fulfilled.
F504 (1863) J783
This lovely summer poem uses two hours of a summer morning – between four and six a.m. – to not only pay tribute to birdsong but to remind us of the unseen wonders and miracles that move the world. Dickinson opens the poem in the first pearly hints of dawn as birdsong fills the air. She likens the multitude of voices to the swelling babble of numerous brooks as they join together in a pond. The only other "Listener" would be the occasional workman up early to begin his day.
The fourth and fifth stanzas make a distinction between bird and human: the birds burst into song out of "independent Ecstasy" rather than for applause and recognition. Once the sun has "engrossed" the sky, however, the songs cease, the birds having finished and perhaps even flown away without any fuss. It is as if the birds daily gather in force to sing the day into miraculous existence. We humans are a bit obtuse, rarely noticing this – or if we do, quickly forgetting it.
Among the very nice images and metaphors Dickinson employs, I particularly like the rich paradoxical abstraction of "Music numerous as space – / But neighboring as Noon –". Some contemporary physicists describe the vast, seemingly emptiness of space as woven by tiny vibrating strings. As birdsong fills the air, Dickinson implies, the music takes on a similar seamless quality despite the discrete nature of each vocalization. Despite this almost mystic plentitude, the birdsong is as close to us, as familiar, as "neighboring" as noon.
Dickinson made some changes in this poem. Franklin's version has some key differences from that published by Johnson. The first is commonsensical: "The Listener" vs. "Witnesses." The workmen no doubt could hear but not necessarily see the birds. The second substitution is "Universe" for "Deity." That's a bit more telling. The birds' ecstasy is not only for orchard and flower beds (or whatever else they like about "Men"), but for all the world and cosmos. Perhaps Dickinson felt that "Deity" was too specific, or that while saints might sing in ecstasy of the Creator, birds are filled with joy at the creation.
The last change is in the last stanza: "Resumed" for "controlled." I think this is simply a better poetic choice – richer, more subtle and surprising. It also makes a bit more sense. Daytime ushers in or resumes the active (in a human sense) world. It doesn't control it.
The poem has a regular rhyme and meter pattern. Each stanza (with the exception of the first line of the first) has the first, second, and fourth lines in iambic trimeter. The third line (plus the first line of the poem) is always iambic tetrameter. The second and fourth lines of each stanza feature slant rhymes. This pattern is similar to the common hymn or ballad form of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines (seen in the first stanza). To me, the variance introduces a rather expository abruptness. Contrast the flow of "The Sun engrossed the East / The Day controlled the World" to the first lines: "The Birds begun at Four o'clock – / Their period for Dawn." While the latter seems to roll off the tongue in a lulling story-telling mode, the former seems a bit choppy.
The effect is partly visual as it diminishes when the first two lines are read as if they were one iambic hexameter. By dividing them and introducing choppiness, Dickinson maintains emphasis on the events on each line as is appropriate for a story condensed into a two-hour period.
Dawn Song – Emily Dickinson
Written by Frances Wood
This is BirdNote! [Mixture of birds calling at dawn]
One of the magical gifts of spring is to hear the dawn song. As early morning light extinguishes the stars, as the first rays of sunlight fill the trees, male birds begin to pour out their songs. Warblers… , sparrows…, chickadees…, thrushes…, finches…, wrens…, blackbirds… [Repeat dawn song, building to a full boisterous sound]
While the awe and majesty of this symphony at dawn are hard to convey, poet Emily Dickinson, described it this way:
The birds begun at four o’clock—
Their period for dawn—
A music numerous as space
And measureless as noon.
I could not count their force,
Their voices did expend
As brook by brook bestows itself
To magnify the pond.
Their witnesses were not,
Except occasional man
In homely industry arrayed
To overtake the morn.
Nor was it for applause
That I could ascertain,
But independent ecstasy
Of Deity and Men. [More dawn song]
For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.
Dawn Chorus (Dawn at Carnation Marsh, WA during April) provided by: Martyn Stewart at Naturesound.org
BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and produced by John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson / Dominic Black
© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org Revised for March 2017
ID # 032105dawnKPLU edickinson-01b-2009-04-07-MM
Species: Dark-eyed Junco (repeated trilling); Red-breasted Sapsucker (early drumming); Pileated Woodpecker (call); Song Sparrow; White-crowned Sparrow; and Black-headed Grosbeak.