These—are the Banks of the Yellow Sea—
Where it rose—or whither it rushes—
These—are the Western Mystery!
Night after Night
Her purple traffic
Strews the landing with Opal Bales—
Merchantmen—poise upon Horizons—
Dip—and vanish like Orioles!
F297 (1862) 266
This sunset poem seems to build upon the last, F296. In that short poem the clouds are ships that toss on a daffodil-colored sea. In this one the poet is looking at the golden light cast be sunset that seems to wash the land. The horizon bounds the sky and so becomes the “Banks of the Yellow Sea.” Sometimes sunsets are like that—radiant gold.
Colorful clouds, “purple traffic,” sail across this sea. Some of them pile up along the one horizon line, their purple fading to an opalescence. Some of the smaller clouds move out of sight, and these, the “Merchantmen” Dickinson compares to orioles. These lovely birds to have a dipping flight and, in addition, a lovely sunset gold to go with the Yellow Sea.
Dickinson wonders where sunset comes from and “whither it rushes.” She has touched on this question in earlier poems. In this one, where she calls sunset’s destination the “Western Mystery,” she alludes to death. The East, where the sun rises, is traditionally associated with new birth and life. The setting sun, in the West, is likened to the sunset of life. Like autumn, the image is of the fading of light and life.
With this in mind, the busy merchantmen loading the “Opal Bales” can be seen just before they, too, fall below life’s horizon.
Dickinson achieves some nice effects in this poem. The first stanza with its “This—is,” “These—are,” and “These—are” lulls us as if we are about to be told a story. We are taken straight away into a fantasy landscape: “the land—the Sunset washes.” She ends the stanza with a mystery.
The second stanza is filled with strong and specific words that contribute to the vividness of the poem: purple, Strews, Opal Bales, Merchantmen, poise, Dip, vanish, Orioles.
The meter has a rocking quality that mimics the sea. The first stanza uses a blurred trochaic/anapestic/iambic structure: THESE—are the BANKS of the YELlow SEA. They gently slosh off the tongue. The second stanza interrupts this smoothness. The first two lines would follow the pattern, but Dickinson breaks them up for emphasis. “Night after Night” becomes much stronger when on a line by itself, suggesting the unchanging rhythm of time and sky—and life and death. Night always comes. The other lines echo the metric pattern of the first stanza but with slight interruptions—much like the dipping flight of the Orioles.
The subtle slant rhymes work well, too. “Washes” is paired with “rushes,” the words suggesting both gentleness and urgency. The sky is washed before the light/life leaves it. “Sea” and “Mystery” perfectly summarize Dickinson’s point: where do we go once we reach the end of our sea? No one knows. My favorite, though, is the rhyme of “Opal Bales” with “Orioles.” I doubt if any other poet has used that!