The Lilac is an ancient Shrub
But ancienter than that
The Firmamental Lilac
Opon the Hill Tonight—
The Sun subsiding on his Course
Bequeathes this final plant
To Contemplation—not to Touch—
The Flower of Occident.
Of one Corolla is the West—
The Calyx is the Earth—
The Capsule’s burnished Seeds the Stars—
The Scientist of Faith
His research has but just begun—
Above his Synthesis
The Flora unimpeachable
To Time’s Analysis—
“Eye hath not seen” may possibly
Be current with the Blind
But let not Revelation
By Theses be detained—
~Emily Dickinson (poem 1241)
We all want a rich life. We also know the futility of trying to create it with things that don’t last. The stack of books on my desk tells me we aren’t the first to feel this way, from the nihilistic skepticism which figures so strongly in the novels of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby chronicles a sad cycle of adultery, suicide and murder amid the supposedly lighthearted atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties to Ernest Hemingway’s failed romances and alcoholic anti-hero which usually end up in something like the atmosphere of his ironically titled short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” There the young waiters counsel suicide and old waiters mockingly pray, “our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name,” or “Hail nothing, full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”
William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury alludes to and is fully developed around the imagery of Macbeth’s despairing, dying proclamation that life itself “is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”
In refreshing contrast, Emily Dickinson’s poem 1241, references 1 Corinthians 2:9, one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible which says
Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
In her poem (popularly titled The Lilac Is An Ancient Scrub) she takes an exception to this verse, suggesting that it “may possibly / Be current with the Blind,” but those who are capable of seeing a sunset might have experienced a glimpse of heaven.
When we brush up against God, we know it.
True enough, because Paul continues in verse 10, “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.”
We are able to imagine, to see in images, what God has prepared for us because of the work of the Spirit. “Let not Revelation / By Theses be detained,” the poem concludes, referring both to Paul’s account of revelation of the Spirit as well as the Book of Revelation, which uses vivid images to describe the heaven that is to come.
D I G D E E P E R
Lilacs in the Sun and Lilacs, Grey Weather
Claude Monet painted these two canvases in the garden of his first home in Argenteuil, near Paris, in spring 1872.
Characters are seated under a bush of lilacs in bloom. One of the two paintings is done when the sky is overcast, the other one when the sun shines. For the first time, Monet put his easel on the same spot to study changes in the light. His intention is made clear by the titles he chose.
According to Sylvie Patin, Chief Curator of musee d’Orsay in Paris, where Lilacs,Grey Weather can be seen, these two works can be considered as the first step in direction of the series, a method Monet would apply systematically ten years later.
Like many of us, Emily Dickinson loved sunsets, “the Firmamental Lilac.” I live a few blocks away from Sunset Park, a narrow strip of grass and flowers perched on a hill above Puget Sound looking out toward the Olympic Mountains in the west. When the sun sets, especially during the summer, the park is full of neighbors who silently watch as the huge glowing orb steadily slips behind the mountains or sinks into the sea (depending on the sun’s position in the horizon). While the Psalms are full of appreciation for the presence of God in huge thunderstorms, I find sunsets one of the places where I am especially attuned to the goodness of God’s creation.
This poem has a deceptive opening, initially appearing to be another one of Dickinson’s flower poems. The syntactically simple first line is straightforward and blunt. The first thing about a lilac that comes to my mind is its sweet fragrance, but the poet singles out its age; it is “an ancient Shrub.” Dickinson’s garden at the Homestead had several lilac bushes, and their ancient quality is evidenced in the fact that some of these shrubs still bloom today, as you can see (and smell) if you visit Amherst in May. The “turn” that appears in so many of Dickinson’s poems shows up already in the second line of what, for Dickinson, is a long poem: “But ancienter than that / The Firmamental Lilac.” Firmament is a grand-old, King-James-Bible, literary word for sky that permeates the Genesis 1 creation story. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and separated light from darkness. “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.… And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day” (Gen 1:1, 5–8). Sunset, the lilac of the sky, is as ancient as the second day of creation.
But the poem describes the sunset we are witnessing this evening, “The Sun subsiding on his Course” over a nearby hill, which “Bequeathes this final plant.” The day is dying, and the expiring sun leaves as a last inheritance “The Flower of Occident,” the flower of the west. Unlike the ancient shrub of the opening line, however, this plant cannot be physically grasped, or touched. It is left us for “Contemplation.” The stanza breaks here, and the meditation follows in the second stanza.
That meditation opens with an unpacking or explicating of the controlling metaphor of the first stanza: lilac = sunset. Precise botanical terms are used: the corolla is the collective term for the petals of a flower that form a ring around the reproductive organs and are surrounded by an outer ring of sepals; the calyx is the group of sepals, usually green, around the outside of a flower that protects the flower bud; and the capsule is the fruit containing seeds that are released when the flower is mature. Think about a dandelion: its gold petals, green sepals, and mature feathery seeds that are carried away by the wind. Similarly, as a lilac’s flowers fade they develop into brown seed pods. In the sunset, the pinks and lavenders of the western sky are the petals, the green earth the calyx, and the glowing evening stars that gradually emerge are the burnished (shimmering) seeds, as the dying sun gives birth to other distant suns.
This explication uses technical scientific terms, which Dickinson knew from her study of botany at Amherst Academy and employed in constructing her herbarium, and she now mockingly terms herself a “Scientist of Faith,” who conducts “research” and performs the technical activities of “Synthesis” and “Analysis.” Such an approach is limited, however. The research “has but just begun,” and the “Flora” (another scientific term) is “unimpeachable,” impossible to discredit or challenge, so good that it is beyond reproach. Neither unpacking the metaphor nor scientifically explaining flowers/sunsets capture the full glorious reality, which can only be perceived for oneself. Twenty poems about sunsets do not even begin to approach the beauty of a single living sunset.
Line 17 quotes 1 Cor 2:9, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” The poet takes exception to this verse, suggesting that it “may possibly / Be current with the Blind,” but those who are capable of seeing a sunset might have experienced a glimpse of heaven. Indeed, Paul continues in verse 10, “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.” We are able to imagine, to see in images, what God has prepared for us because of the work of the Spirit. “Let not Revelation / By Theses be detained,” the poem concludes, referring both to Paul’s account of revelation of the Spirit as well as the Book of Revelation, which uses vivid images to describe the heaven that is to come. Theses, argumentative propositions associated with analysis and synthesis, ought not to detain the magnificent revelation of God granted to us through a sunset. If we open our eyes of faith, with the help of the Spirit, we will see God.
Susan VanZanten, Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson, ed. Clayton J. Schmit and J. Frederick Davison, Art for Faith’s Sake (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 71–72