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These are the days when birds come back (130) c. 1859
Emily Dickinson
These are the days when Birds come back —
A very few — a Bird or two —
To take a backward look.
These are the days when skies resume
The old — old sophistries of June —
A blue and gold mistake.
Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee —
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.
Till ranks of seeds their witness bear —
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.
Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze —
Permit a child to join.
Thy sacred emblems to partake —
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!
For these days of late summer and early fall, I’ve chosen a favorite poem by Emily Dickinson, “These are the days the when birds come back.”
Emily Dickinson never went far from home. Indeed, for most of her life, she never left her house and garden. That being said, it wasn’t just any garden. From a very young age, Dickinson learned to love gardening. As an adult, she maintained an extensive garden, and even had a conservatory for rarer plants indoors. She also kept an herbarium, a common hobby at the time—an album in which she collected pressings of more than 400 different plants, each labeled with its Latin name. When she was a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson was pretty miserable—except when she was studying botany!
Dickinson’s niece, Martha Bianchi, left a description of Dickinson’s garden. “There were long beds filling the main garden, where one walked between a succession of daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths in spring—through the mid-summer richness—up to the hardy chrysanthemums that smelled of Thanksgiving, savory and chill, when only the marigolds... were left to rival them in pungency.”
All of this found its way into Dickinson’s poetry, which is full of close observation of the natural world. She saw more in her small corner of New England than most of us see in a lifetime!  She describes a hummingbird as “a resonance of emerald.” Bees are “black, with Gilt Surcingles – Buccaneers of Buzz.” A snake is “a narrow fellow.” A frog is the hoarse “Orator of April.” Dickinson’s descriptions of nature are as accurate and carefully observed as they are idiosyncratic.
In this early poem, written when she was about 29, Dickinson captures the feeling of the transition between the seasons, when fall has arrived but summer is not quite gone. The birds are there—but just “a Bird or two.” The skies are still “blue and gold,” but this is not really summer—this is “sophistry,” a “mistake,” a “cheat.” The bees are not fooled by this “fraud.” And yet, the poet is willing to be deceived and to believe it is still summer, until the falling of the leaves, and the flying of seeds through the air, and the change in the atmosphere put the question beyond any doubt--summer is over.
In the last two stanzas, the diction changes. Instead of language of deception and fraud, Dickinson describes this in-between time in much more elevated terms: “Sacrament,” “sacred,” “consecrated,” “immortal.” She begs to join in this “communion,” to be herself a partaker of the “bread” and “wine” of these last of the summer days.
This poem shows us Dickinson’s careful attention to the natural world. She speaks of nature in a way that is both playful and reverent. Nature is like a sacrament—a means by which God’s grace comes to us.
Dickinson was a contemporary of the Transcendentalists—people like Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and others. But Dickinson was never really a Transcendentalist—for her, nature was never interchangeable with God; nature was rather a gift of God, a sign of God’s reality and presence. And in that belief, Dickinson, always a non-conformist, is actually quite Catholic! In his encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis has written: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things” (233).



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