Winter Solstice tonight—time for darkness and contemplation, waiting. We pause at the turning point before embarking on the long return to summer. Emily holds a splinter of light and asks: Where does it point? What is the path it wants to illuminate? Not the whole path, just the beginning. It begins with a song.
#250, c. 1861
I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes —
Each — with a Robin’s expectation —
I — with my Redbreast —
And my Rhymes —
Late — when I take my place in summer —
But — I shall bring a fuller tune —
Vespers — are sweeter than Matins — Signor —
Morning — only the seed of Noon —
Sound brought the universe into existence and so does everything else come to life with sound. When we speak an intention or desire, that begins it. “I love . . . I want . . . Why don’t we? Would you . . . Will you?” All these sounds lead to trouble and change. The ground shifts because someone says, “I want.”
Emily does something a little out of character here when she writes: “I take my place in summer . . . “ which pleases me. She announces her right to occupy space. She is a fully realized person of weight and substance. That “I take” borders on aggression, assertion certainly.
Then at the end in the direct address to “Signor” her tone dials back from the hungry tigress to the coquette. “Vespers are sweeter than Matins . . .” She veils her energy in a pretty and holy metaphor. By the time we get to the end of the poem, however, it’s too late. No one can mistake the fierce woman behind the flirty words. She has already tipped her hand. She may soften her note to persuade, rather than frighten. But this Signor faces a woman of appetite. He should be so lucky.
What is she up to? Emily sings in celebration of the late harvest, the fuller tune of that mature season of summer that comes after the callow, youthful spring. Furthermore, her song lasts forever, long after the Robins have been silenced by age, death, winter. The song that Emily sings onto the page is informed by the intelligence of a long life and all the shocks that give her voice dimension and timbre, the story beneath the song. This song is sweeter because it is more interesting, complex, veined with an awareness of death, thus more sustaining. Em says that time has made her the better lover. Her song isn’t kidding around. Signor is an idiot if he doesn’t recognize the value of that.
Tonight for the solstice, I’ll make a meal—not sure what yet, but something good. Then we will have grilled figs, our own late harvest. We’ll light the candles on the Christmas tree, and sit in the darkness to watch the small flame flicker against its opposite. We’ll do all that just to know what it looks like to hold a light in the dark. We will complete these gestures, as we do every year, to see our hope external and playing shadows on the wall.