I’ll tell you how the sun rose, –
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”
But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while
Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.
Analysis originally published for Humber College, March 2012
Spirituality is an integral aspect of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’ll tell you how the sun rose”. Under Dickinson’s narrative about the rising and setting sun is deep-rooted symbolism in the variety of descriptions and colours she writes about in order to convey the “birth of a new day” in relation to both spirituality and nature.
While the poem is one of Dickinson’s shortest, the structure includes a lot of vibrancy and description. Within the poem’s structure, it’s interesting to note that each reference to wilderness and “warm” colours is led by a capital letter, when noting the morning’s rising sun. “The Steeples swam in Amethyst / The news, like Squirrels, ran / the Hills untied their Bonnets / the Bobolinks – begun / Then I said softly to myself / ‘That must have been the Sun’!” While the bobolinks’ chirping truly symbolizes the “news” of a new dawn, the use of squirrels for the sun casting new light over the lands is interesting, considering squirrels are very quick creatures, and thus shows how fast the night sky is obliterated by the sun. The steeples that Dickinson’s description refers to, alludes to that of a church steeples, and how they are cast in shadow due to the harshness of the “newborn” sunlight. In that respect, the use of the colour amethyst relates to the colour violet, which in turn symbolizes spirituality and the journey for spiritual fulfillment.
When Dickinson writes about what a setting sun looks like, describing, “There seemed a purple stile / That little Yellow boys and girls / Were climbing all the while”, she doesn’t capitalize the first letter of “purple”, indicating a possible drain of energy. In my interpretation, the “Yellow boys and girls” indicate vibrant energy; excitement over being outside and playing after a long afternoon in Sunday school. In reference to the schoolmaster, it is clear that Dickinson is referring to the end of the new day when she writes, “Till when [the children] reached the other side / A Dominie in Gray / Put gently up the evening Bars / And led the flock away”. The colour of the schoolmaster’s clothing also symbolizes the end of a new day, as gray’s meaning is rooted in stability and rest – while at the same time invokes sorrow, which reflects how the children possibly feel about having to be forced away from playing outside to be led back home, where they must go to sleep.
However, the spiritual symbolism doesn’t stop at Dickinson’s use of colours. Throughout the poem, Dickinson uses a syllable count of six, seven, and eight. The numbers six and seven bear symbolism in Christian beliefs; six referring to “The Sixth Day”, the day Man was created, and seven as “The Seventh Day”, the holy day of rest. The six- and seven-syllable lines in Dickinson’s poem respectively symbolize their spiritual meanings; “I’ll tell you how the sun rose” – seven syllables, a reference to the past, meaning restful reflection on something already occurred – “A Ribbon at a time” – six syllables, a reference to the creation of the sun (or Son, meaning Man? An idea subtly noted later in the poem when Dickinson writes, “But how he set [the sun/Son] – I know not”).
The eight-syllable lines, however, refer to darkness and shadow for the most part, as the number eight is seen in Greek lore as a sign of unhappiness or imperfection. Dickinson uses this “unhappiness” symbolism in the lines that relate to purple shadows cast over the church’s steeples and the fence, marking the end of the day and the children’s disappointment that they can’t stay out longer to play with each other.
Therefore, it’s clear as the day dies down and the children are called back inside, we as human beings are summoned to “sleep” as our own days “die” – until eventual rebirth takes place. The crack of dawn, the song of birds, and our awaking breaths, symbolizing new life, a new day. Dickinson’s narration in this poem describes the constant pattern of life and death – its cyclical nature in the form of spiritual and natural symbolism.