A Day by Emily Dickinson || Summary, Notes and Exercise || Grade XII English


1.    A Day by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson


‘A Day‘ by Emily Dickinson is a well-known metaphysical poem of the nineteenth century, famous for its double meaning and intellectual metaphors. In a literal sense, ‘A Day’ describes sunrise and sunset. In a metaphorical sense, it also details the transition from life to death. Moreover, the poem features a child persona, whose innocence and confident tone reveals the beauty of a sunrise.



‘A Day by Emily Dickinson describes the rising and setting of the sun on a literal level while juxtaposing life and death. 

The poem begins with the persona—an unnamed child—confidently describing how the sun rises, and the events that follow this phenomenon. This speaker shows excitement on sighting birds, hills, and the rising sun itself, thus portraying the child’s innocence regarding his/her view of the world. He/she only sees the beauty of life. 

Coming to the metaphorical meaning, the opening stanzas of the poem show the hustle and bustle that comes with living.

As the poem progresses, the child becomes less confident describing a sunset. He/she doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to explain it. Nonetheless, this speaker tells of the purpling of the sky as the sun sets until the sky turns completely dark. This symbolizes the inactivity associated with dying. It also shows the little knowledge living beings truly have about death.


Speaker of the Poem

The speaker, or poet persona, in Dickinson’s poem is an unnamed child. He/she begins the poem as if responding to a question. The persona is confident and excited talking about sunrise. However, that confidence wanes when the child describes sunset. Regardless, this speaker’s diction and inherent innocence urge readers to appreciate the beauty of nature. 

Structure and Form

Originally, Emily Dickinson’s poem has two versions. The first has no stanza breaks and is not popularly known.

On the other hand, the second version of ‘A Day consists of four quatrains. The last three quatrains follow an alternate rhyme scheme, where only the second and fourth lines rhyme. In addition, the last quatrain of this lyrical poem has a regular meter, as lines of eight syllables alternate with those having six. Since the first three quatrains have irregular meters and the poem itself has no definite rhyme scheme, A Day is seen as a free verse poem.

Furthermore, several lines in the poem are punctuated with dashes; seemingly random words are capitalized throughout as well. This is a writing style specific to Emily Dickinson. While there is no clear reason behind both peculiarities, the dashes may have been included to indicate pauses when reading ‘A Day aloud.

Lastly, Dickinson never titled ‘A Day.’ Rather, a group of posthumous editors gave her poem its current name: “A Day”. Another title it bears is its first line: “I’ll Tell You How The Sun Rose.” 

Literary Devices

The following literary devices feature in Dickinson’s ‘A Day’:

  • Symbolism: The dominant literary device in Dickinson’s ‘A Day remains symbolism. The entire poem symbolises the transition from life to death. With each stanza, the poet infers the human behaviours associated with life and death, finally implying what awaits after death from her religious perspective.
  • Metaphor: This is the second dominant device in Dickinson’s poem. She uses several direct comparisons to foster relatable imagery. In stanza 1, line 2, she calls sunrays “ribbons”. She refers to the same sunrays as “Yellow boys and girls” in stanza 3, line 3. The “Dominie in gray” in stanza 4, line 2 represents “God” or a religious figure; “flock” refers to humans. Lastly, “evening bars” in stanza 4, line 3 is a metaphor for the end of a day, or the end of life.
  • Simile: An instance of simile appears in stanza 1, line 4, where the “news” of sunrise spreads at the speed of a squirrel’s run.
  • Personification: This is another poetic device in ‘A Day‘. It appears in stanza 1, line 3, where “Steeples”, like human beings, swim; in stanza 2, line 2, where “hills” remove their “bonnets” in the same fashion as women.
  • Alliteration: Alliteration appears in stanza 1, line 3, with the repetition of the “s” sound; also in stanza 2, line 2, where the “b” sound is prevalent.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –

A Ribbon at a time –

The Steeples swam in Amethyst –

The news, like Squirrels, ran –

The poem begins with the speaker narrating to us readers how the sun rises. The persona refers to the sun’s rays as “ribbons”.  The layering of these “ribbons” is a gradual process. But the significance of the eventual sunrise isn’t lost on the world. “The news…” of this phenomenon travels fast. 

The eagerness of the child speaker to talk about sunrise portrays his/her innocent view of the world. This persona cares for the seemingly insignificant things, thus telling readers it’s okay to pause and appreciate the “normal” changes in nature. Like the sunrise. In a metaphorical sense, this stanza also hints at the excitement stemming from the beginning of life (childbirth). 

Additionally, we glimpse Emily Dickinson’s religious background with the mention of “Steeples”, a part of a church building.

Stanza Two

The Hills untied their Bonnets –

The Bobolinks – begun –

Then I said softly to myself –

‘That must have been the Sun!’

This stanza describes the events which occur due to sunrise. The sun illuminates the top of “Hills” and “Bobolinks” (a species of blackbirds) begins to sing. This stanza highlights similarly natural occurrences that seem to respond to the sun rising. It once again focuses on the beauty of nature around us, thus encouraging readers to be more appreciative of them.

The speaker’s awe is apparent in this stanza when he/she exclaims, “That must have been the Sun!” This particular line confirms our speaker is a child, as no adult would need much description to recognize the sun or its rising.

Stanza Three

But how he set – I know not –

There seemed a purple stile

Which little Yellow boys and girls

Were climbing all the while –

In this stanza, the subject matter drifts from sunrise to sunset, and the speaker’s tone from excited to reserved. The child’s confidence wanes since he/she doesn’t know much about sunset. Yet, the persona describes the little they can, more sober than excited.

This stanza is more symbolic than literal, as Dickinson uses it to show the transition from life to death. On a metaphorical level, ‘A Day’ tells readers how little any living being knows about death. Like the child speaker, humans prefer to talk about more exciting things, and so reserve their thoughts on the dreadful subject.

On the other hand, the literal imagery in this stanza presents the rising sun moving from the East to set in the West.

Stanza Four

Till when they reached the other side,

A Dominie in Gray –

Put gently up the evening Bars –

And led the flock away –

In the final stanza of ‘A Day’, Emily Dickinson’s faith comes to light. This dominantly symbolic stanza uses Christian references like “flock” and “Dominie in gray” to show the poet’s own view about death. Where a “Dominie in gray” means “God”, and “flock” means human beings, Dickinson believes God leads human beings wherever after they die.

On the other hand, the stanza literally ushers in the evening when the sun finally sets. Due to the inactivity of the time, the speaker’s excitement, at this point, is non-existent. Hence, ‘A Day ends on a sober note.


Dickinson’s poem explores the beauty of nature from the phenomena of sunrise and sunset. Digging deeper, the poet also examines life, death, and the transition between the two in ‘A Day.’ Another theme is spirituality: a common one among Dickinson’s poems. With references to the “Dominie in gray” and “flock”, Dickinson reveals her Christian faith and the belief that God awaits humans at the end of their lives.


Tone and Mood

The speaker’s tone is confident for the first two stanzas of ‘A Day.’ This stems from his/her sufficient knowledge about sunrise. He/she also maintains their excitement through these stanzas, due to the activity this phenomenon brings. However, the speaker’s tone becomes uncertain for the last two stanzas. This is attributed to his/her insufficient knowledge about sunset. In addition, the persona turns sober, as the excitement which comes with the rising sun disappears.

Understanding the text

a) How does the poet describe the morning sun in the first stanza?

The poet describes the sun as a sign of happiness. She describes the rising sun as the first gorgeous, golden sunbeams stretch about like ribbons. The sunrays were like a pattern of ribbons which were untied one at a time. It was everything vivid and apparent. It turned the steeple color into amethyst. Then, the gloomy darkness begins to change colour as soon as the sun's brilliant fire emerges. As a result, the news of the appearance of the sun spreads rapidly, like the pace of squirrels.

b) What does the line ‘The news like squirrels ran’ mean?

The meaning of the line 'The news like squirrels ran' is that the pace of spread of the news of sunrise was so quick, as it is like the squirrels speed. Squirrels are faster-running creatures. The light of the sun spreads rapidly. That is why, poet used the metaphor of 'The news like squirrels ran' to indicate that the news of sunrise was faster like the speed of squirrels.

C) What do you understand by the line ‘The hills untied their bonnets’?

The hills are in the cap (bonnet) of darkness before the sun rises. Bonnets mean a special type of hat which can be tied under the chin. Before sunrise, the hills seem darker and gloomier as they were not happy. But as soon as the sun emerges and the sun rays fall on hills, they become so happy and excited. They unveil their greenery and beauty by removing their bonnets. All hills appear lovely in excellent green colour after sunrise. The hills are characterized as they loosen their caps like ladies. Hence, the hills seem to be removing their hats in a frenzied manner, after the sunrise is what the above phrase mean.

d) Is the speaker watching the morning sun? Why? Why not?

I have some logics to say that the speaker is not watching the morning sun.  'I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’ somehow means that the speaker has witnessed the sun rise and the changes following the sun rise, and at the present moment he is describing what he saw. But, it possibly does not mean he is watching the sun at the moment. Speaker is not doing the real-time narration of the morning sun. That is why we can say the speaker is not watching the morning sun at that time.

e) How does the sun set?

The speaker is really unknown to the sunset. All he knows is that the sun goes away taking all the happiness, joy and leaves the unhappy and gloomy dark when it sets, he doesn't know where. The slowly turning purple and yellow hues signal the sun's setting, but since the he is unclear, he doesn't know how exactly the sun set.

Reference to the context

What, according to the speaker, is a day?

Emily Dickinson's 'A Day' is a lyrical poem that describes dawn and sunset, where day is symbolized as life. A day is life, where sun rise is the birth, and setting of the sun is compared with death.  It also depicts the beauty of life and the uncertainty of death in a philosophical sense. Sunrise and sunset are literally described in 'A Day.' It further describes the journey from life to death in a metaphorical way.

What purpose does the hyphen in the first line serve in the poem?

Hyphen (--) is used in poetry to indicate a break. In this poem, Emily Dickenson innovatively utilizes this punctuation mark. She is using hyphens if she does not find the words for profound feelings, to give readers the power of silence in some circumstances, to imagine, to fill the missing word, or she is allowing the readers to take some time ponder on the context by themselves.

What makes this poem lyrical and sonorous? Discuss.

Emily has used her magic tricks to make this poem lyrical, sonorous and lovely. Written in the first-person narrative, the poem is a lyrical poetry in the sense that it conveys personal feelings or emotions that the author has. The poetic persona is indicated by the use of the initial pronoun "I" in lyrical poetry. This poem is quite brief, and the author is conveying her own personal experience of seeing the dawn in this piece of writing. Sonorous refers to being full of sound and densely packed with rhymes or phrases. There are a variety of factors that contribute to the musical and melodic quality of a poem. This poem's musicality is enhanced by the use of sound techniques such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and rhythm.

Who are the target audience of the speaker? Why?

 In this poem, Children and Adults both are the target audience of the speaker. The readers are shown the world as viewed by an innocent kid. Speaker is telling his friends, "I will tell you how the sun rose". So, we may argue that the intended audience consists of kids who have lost the opportunity to see the sun rising when they wake up late at morning. When we look at the poem from a philosophical point of view, the whole human race is also the intended audience. Sunrise is the beginning of life, daytime activities are a trip through life, and sundown is the end of life. However, the final result is a little mysterious.

The poem seems to describe a day for children. How would the adult people respond to this poem? Discuss this poem with your parents/guardians and write the answer based on their responses.

The poem seems to describe a day for children. But, this poem is also suitable for the adult people. This poem is a literal description of the dawn, as well as the events that occur between sunrise and sundown. For children, direct meaning of poem is applicable but for adults, metaphysical meaning of this poem makes more sense. To be more precise, the poem speaks about the passage from life to death in a metaphysical sense. There is enthusiasm at the beginning of life, a squirrel racing like a life and a strange conclusion to a life in this poem.




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