An altered look about the hills—
A Tyrian light the village fills—
A wider sunrise in the morn—
A deeper twilight on the lawn—
A print of a vermillion foot—
A purple finger on the slope—
A flippant fly upon the pane—
A spider at his trade again—
An added strut in Chanticleer—
A flower expected everywhere—
An axe shrill singing in the woods—
Fern odors on untravelled roads—
All this and more I cannot tell—
A furtive look you know as well—
And Nicodemus’ Mystery
Receives its annual reply!
“An altered look about the hills” at first seems only to present a collage of springtime images, but by the poem’s end, we discover a speaker considering larger theological questions. The accumulation of observable details and recurring syntactical patterns in the first two-thirds of the poem delay the surprise of the pattern’s dramatic variation in the final four lines—a postponement that triggers the full payload of the speaker’s revelation.
The first four lines introduce the poem’s predominant syntactic arrangement and begin to catalogue observations. The repeating structure of the phrases (an article, adjective, noun, prepositional phrase, and dash) creates a stable pattern that brings to mind the (predictability of) seasonal cycles; the adjectives, however, suggest underlying tension. The first line describes the “look” of the landscape as “altered,” implying modification and adjustment instead of a more hopeful change associated with spring. In line 2, “Tyrian light” nods, on one level, to brilliance and an expansive focal range—the “light” behaves like that of a Mediterranean port town. However, in the context of this poem, “Tyrian” connotes both rebellion and danger. The ancient city of Tyre deserted its ally—Jerusalem—and delighted in its downfall. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel foretells Tyre’s demise (with many prophesies being historically fulfilled), and God rails against the city: “I will make you an object of terror; you will not exist. People will look for you but never find you again—” (Ezekiel 26:21). The biblical implications of this description will be more fully understood by the end of the poem. In lines 3 and 4, implicit comparisons and temporal shifts create subtle friction between the sense of movement and the stable, recurring syntax; the lines span from “sunrise” to “twilight,” and the adjectives reach back in time to a previous season noting the light is “wider” and “deeper” than it was before.
Line 5 echoes the syntactic pattern closely enough to feel like a repetition, but it varies word order slightly (article, noun, adjectival phrase, and dash), while line 6 returns to the prevailing syntactical pattern. Thematically, lines 5 and 6 continue to build natural images of the season. Appealing to the reader’s visual senses, the poem personifies springtime’s light as a “print of a vermillion foot” and “purple finger on the slope.” Though both images are static, they suggest swooping gestures and animated involvement of a willful force actively altering the (intellectual and literal) landscape.
Moving from an expansive view, the poem zooms in on particular creatures. Closing up the focal range gives the reader a sense of being nearer the (as yet unnamed) speaker, while shifting perspectives creates friction with the stable syntax, in effect, mimicking the conflict between predictability and quick, turbulent, seasonal change. The choice of images here, too, continues to shape a portrait of spring, but speaks to the poem’s tense undercurrent. In line 7, the “flippant fly upon the pane” is oblivious to the “spider” (in line 8) actively building a trap nearby; this tension is heightened by the varied syntactic pattern in line 8 (article, noun, prepositional phrase, adverb, and dash), with the adverb “again” calling attention to the spider’s repeated task. While line 9 returns to the predominant syntax, it is complicated by the reference to “Chanticleer,” the fabled rooster whose dooming dream comes true, but by playing on his predator’s pride, he escapes. “Chanticleer,” in this poem, walks with an “added strut,” signifying confidence and, perhaps, a warning against arrogance.
The poem begins to turn in line 10 with the introduction of a verb and an implied speaker. Starting with an article and noun (“A flower”), this line echoes the (varied) syntax in lines 5 and 8, but the verb, “expected” changes the thrust of the poem. For the first time, someone is behind the catalog of observations. The momentum created by the stack of images and recurring syntax in the previous lines is funneled into the disruption created by this verb, prompting the reader to contemplate who, exactly, is expectant.
Lines 11 and 12, however, hold off on any revelation of the speaker and, instead, push ahead to catalog more observations. While these lines add to the accumulation of details, there are variations to note: line 11 introduces sound (“An axe shrill singing”), and line 12, the sense of smell (“Fern odors”) and the idea of mystery and inaccessibility (“untravelled roads”). Additionally, line 11 begins with an article and noun and looks like it will follow a previously seen syntactic pattern, but it employs a participial phrase that emphasizes the strange juxtaposition of “shrill” and “singing,” thereby enmeshing fear and joy. Line 12 breaks, all together, from the firmly set pattern of an initial article and opens, instead, with a noun. These two lines, with their variations, bridge the poem’s movement from a collage of observations to the speaker’s revelation.
The accumulative power of syntactic and thematic repetition in the first two-thirds of the poem ignites the surprise of the subverting shift in the final four lines. In line 13, the speaker, who is finally named, ironically denies being able to talk about the details (and ideas) presented in the first 12 lines (“All this and more I cannot tell—”). The undercurrent of danger that pervades the poem’s imagery hints that the “I” is not unable to speak, but refuses to do so. Ironically, this refusal seems to strengthen the speaker’s authority; the “I” addresses a “you” who corroborates the advantage of withholding knowledge (“A furtive look you know as well— ”). These lines forcefully undercut the poem’s stability, but create an opening through which the meaning can be pursued.
Delay creates the reader’s surprise in the final two lines. We discover that the first 12 lines of the poem are the answer to Nicodemus’ question (to Christ): “How can anyone who is already old be born? Is it possible to go back into the womb again and be born?” (John 3:4). Christ, himself, answers Nicodemus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of the water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). In the poem, however, we see that the speaker has been contemplating Nicodemus’ question from the beginning and finds her answer in the observable evidence of the world: “And Nicodemus’ Mystery / Receives its annual reply!” The underlying question might not be how a person can be “born again,” but why such rebirth is necessary. Seemingly less concerned with “enter[ing] the kingdom of God,” the speaker is more interested in renewal that comes from the attentive self in the world emblematized by nature’s annual rebirth. The reader, now, considering the “Tyrian light” and “Chanticleer,” understands the speaker’s knowing silence; her position is not without risk. Because she believes no rebirth is necessary, the speaker’s position could put her in danger of annihilation (like Tyre), in which case, she (like “Chanticleer”) would be wise to be cautious. Being in theological opposition to Christ’s reply, the speaker chooses not to express her views, perhaps, to avoid condemnation (from a vengeful God or from her peers). The images, then, articulate the unspeakable.
The turn in final four lines reveal the key to how repetition functions in the poem. The first 12 lines focus on fact and observation, while the last four lines allow for interpretation and feeling. The divide highlights the speaker’s position: her answers are derived from the self instead of, like Nicodemus’s, from Christ. Syntactically, the final two lines burst with the energy of this revelation; for the first time in the poem, the syntactic unit does not correspond with the line, but runs over and ends with an exclamation point. The delay created by accumulative repetition gives this poem its moment of “ah ha!”
The author of Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press), Laura Van Prooyen’s recent work is forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and the tenth anniversary anthology: Best of 32 Poems. She is a recipient of grants from the American Association of University Women and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and also was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize for her creative work. Van Prooyen earned an M.F.A. in Poetry at Warren Wilson College, and she lives in San Antonio, TX where she teaches at Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School for Art + Design. Her second collection of poems, Resist, has been a finalist in book competitions and remains under submission.
“An altered look about the hills” reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dicksinson, Thomas H. Johnson ed., J47, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
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Ms. Van Prooyen: Thank you for your commentary on “An altered look about the hills” (F90). It provides several discussion points useful in moving closer to an aural comprehension of this ember still aglow from the summer of 1859. For me the door into a particular Dickinson poem is not so much focal or syntactical, nor is it so much about listing points of remedial grammar to demonstrate her reliance upon patterns that she can joyfully shatter — yes, she does all that — but the world in each poem is made by what happens between the mouth and the ear. In this case that door is her astonishingly varied use of short and long monophthong vowels, many times in combinations that create slant-rhyme events that are daring to say the least (e.g. “morn” and “lawn”). This highwire approach to pairing sounds drove her pure-rhyming contemporaries crazy and she did love to drive them crazy. As for “Tyrian,” references elsewhere, like her November, 1862 letter (J275) to Samuel Bowles, clearly establish that the intended connotation is chromatic, that is, “Tyrian purple,” the outrageously expensive dye produced in the city of Tyre that provided the royal colors for nobility worldwide in the ancient world. As for your focus on Tyre as a deserter of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it all pales into insignificance given that Tyre was the jewel that nearly every imperial power has occupied at one time or another. What is clear is that Dickinson was intrigued by the story of Nicodemus and the prideful rooster Chanticleer. In a letter (J1037) to Mrs. George S. Dickerman, the wife of the pastor of the First Church, Dickinson wrote in 1886: “If we love flowers, are we not ‘born again’ every day, without the distractions of Nicodemus? Not to outgrow Genesis, is a sweet monition.” And earlier, in an 1850 letter to her brother Austin (J37), she wrote: “Permit me to be a fowl, which Bettie shall dress for dinner, a bantam, a fine, fat hen. I will crow in my grave [italics] if will, Chanticleer being still, tho’ sleeping.” So we have: Tyrian Purple (the very color of royal haughtiness) Jesus ridiculing Nicodemus for not being able to overcome his notions about the importance of heredity to spiritual standing, a spider strutting about in Chanticleer (as if it were the key played in a herald trumpeted to a royal audience)…and it all reflects upon the merciless mocking of traditional Christianity that we see all through Dickinson’s work. In some overarching way, I believe she is making the claim of being her own Genesis and Chanticleer is the potential in all of us “to crow” to a world beyond the confines of our own lives.
Hello! Mike Theune, one of the sites’ co-editors, here. The commentary here at Voltage Poetry focuses on the great turns in poems, aiming to have interesting things to say about the dynamics of those turns. They do not aim to be comprehensive–indeed, no relatively short discussions of such excellent poems, including Dickinson’s, could be! I thank you for your astute reminder of the ever-further complexity of significant poetry. Cheers!