Thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s There came a Wind like a Bugle

There came a Wind like a Bugle


There came a Wind like a Bugle –

It quivered through the Grass

And a Green Chill upon the Heat

So ominous did pass

We barred the Windows and the Doors                5

As from an Emerald Ghost –

The Doom’s electric Moccasin

That very instant passed –

On a strange Mob of panting Trees

And Fences fled away                                        10

And Rivers where the Houses ran

Those looked that lived – that Day –

The Bell within the steeple wild

The flying tidings told –

How much can come                                           15

And much can go,

And yet abide the World!

Emily Dickinson (1830  – 1886)

For a good biography of Emily Dickinson, GO HERE


Thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s There came a Wind like a Bugle

Thoughts on Emily Dickinson's There came a Wind like a Bugle
Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886

Emily Dickinson’s ‘There came a Wind like a Bugle’ is one of her strange, but marvellous, poems that demands that one pay close attention to its every aspect and nuance to enjoy it to the full. In the poem Dickinson makes liberal use of surreal imagery and figures of speech, syntactic inversions, unconventional punctuation, a strongly structured syllabic organisation as a counter balance to liberties taken elsewhere, and more.

‘There came a Wind like a Bugle’ dramatises the arrival and passage of a wind storm from its first unexpected appearance when it ‘quivered through the Grass’ through several stages of intensification until it is strong enough to cause a frenzy of bell ringing in the church steeple (‘within the steeple wild’). At this point in the unfolding scenario, Dickinson gives the bell a voice (‘the flying tidings told’) and uses it to state a general truth about how the ‘World’ and nature interact, and how the ‘World’ ‘abide[s]’ despite the many trials and challenges it is presented with. The bell assures us that equilibrium will again be restored once the madness of the gale has passed.

There is a touch of humour in the imagery chosen to illustrate how everything gets distorted by the wind –‘Emerald Ghost’, ‘a strange Mob of panting Trees’, ‘the River where the Houses ran’ and ‘the steeple wild’ are good examples of this. The idea of having a group of trees turn into a mob panting with exhaustion and fear as they try to escape from the wind is humorously surreal, and demonstrates well the run around the wind gives whatever it encounters as it rushes along. Elements in the landscape can thus be seen to change shape and behave strangely in the wind and the stronger the wind becomes, the greater the distortion and chaos.

Let us analyse one of the images of the poem to see how Dickinson has worked it so that it becomes complex, composite and multi-layered. We will use ‘Emerald Ghost’ for this purpose. Here the word ‘ghost’ brings into play the idea of something, a presence, we are ever only to know through its actions: we cannot see it, but we can feel it and we can see the results of its movement through the landscape, a bit like a haunting. Dickinson deepens the characterisation of the ‘ghost’ by attaching to it the adjective ‘emerald’. What does the word ‘emerald’ add to the notion of the ghost? It brings in the colour green which is associated with the vegetation. It also carries with it the idea of a gemstone which serves to elevate its status above the common garden ‘green’. By combining them in ‘Emerald Ghost’, Dickinson fuses the greenness of the vegetation, (grass, trees, ‘Green Chill’), the idea of a gemstone with the fact that the ghost is an invisible entity only identifiable through its actions. In this way, the image is made to reverberate with connotations and functions as a composite, dynamic and multi-layered image. The same sort of layering can be seen in many other images in the poem.

The clustering of words sharing a common theme/ideational thread is another of Dickinson’s favoured poetic devices. The cluster of phrases, ‘ominous’, ‘barred the Windows and the Doors’, ‘strange Mob of panting Trees’, ‘Fences fled away’, ‘Houses ran’ and ‘the steeple wild’, all express a common response to the wind’s threatening behaviour. Everything the wind touches in this scene tries to escape from it, the verbs ‘barred’, ‘fled’, ‘ran’ and the present participle ‘panting’ encapsulate the need to escape.

The opening simile of the poem gives one pause, comparing as it does the wind to a bugle. To begin with the simile seems obscure but with a little thought, it is possible to find a few relevant bugle-and-bugle-call attributes to draw into the comparison. A bugle call is used by the military to announce the start of an event, as well as, to make known the arrival of someone or something significant. What Dickinson draws our attention to with this simile is that the wind announces not only its arrival but forewarns us that the wind storm to come will be an event, a show of strength where the ‘Green Chill, Emerald Ghost, Doom’s electric Moccasin’ are all manifestations of its power. The wind starts off as a quiver in the grass (the bugle call), but soon gathers strength and has people rushing to bar the windows and doors against it, and so on.

Thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s There came a Wind like a Bugle Part 2

There is another aspect of the poem that I would like to touch on briefly before concluding this discussion and that has to do with its tightly controlled syllabic structure. Fifteen of the poem’s seventeen lines strictly follow the alternating 8 and 6 beat per line structure. In practical terms this means that line one is made up of eight syllables and so are lines 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13; and line 2 consists of six syllables as do lines 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17. In the first fourteen lines there is no variation in the pattern despite the fact that the subject matter in these lines is all about the waywardness of the wind. In other poems which deal with reality dissolving into chaos, the syllabic structure of a poem would often deviate from its base form to reflect the breakdown of order. That does not happen in ‘There came a Wind like a Bugle’. Here Dickinson keeps a tight rein on the syllabic structure and in so doing places the poem’s content into contradiction with its syllabic structure. It is as if this syllabic structure has been ‘barred’ shut against the chaos of the wind, like the windows and doors have been ‘barred’ against the threat it poses. Thus Dickinson has protected the integrity of the underlying structure of the poem, kept it safe, so to speak, from any permanent damage by the wind (or any other force with the potential to destroy the established order). There is, however, a break in this structure in lines 15 and 16, but even here the variation is well controlled: an 8-beat line is simply halved to make two lines of 4 syllables each– not much variation to be sure, just a hiccough that will be straightened out is the promise. The change in structure occurs at the point where the bell tells us to take comfort because, despite appearances to the contrary, the ‘World’ will ‘abide’. The final 6-beat line shows a return to basic form, implying that the breakdown of order will be short-lived.

You have no doubt already worked out what function the strong structure performs in the poem. My view is that the syllabic structure is a reflection of the strength of the idea that the world is able to withstand a great deal of turmoil: it has done so in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

How much can come
And much can go
And yet abide the World!

Also take note of the way in which Dickinson has punctuated the poem. The absence of full stops and the fairly extensive use of the dash and double dash (parenthesis) create interesting effects. With investigation, you will no doubt see how the poem’s punctuation, especially the absence of punctuation tends to reflect and support what the wind is up to at a particular juncture in the poem. The punctuation in no way reinforces the strong syllabic structure of the poem, but like the waywardness of the wind tends to contradict it. It is as if the wind has blown away all the full stops and the dash has grown in importance both to guide comprehension and as a visual reflection of the wind’s actions.

In Thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s There came a Wind like a Bugle, I have looked several important aspects of the poem, but there is much more for you to discover should you take your analysis further

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