When August Burning Low



Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now
~Emily Dickinson

“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others.  The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words


On the first day of his class in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this poem on the blackboard and told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse  — someone as culturally distant from him as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song, doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our appreciation of nature. Just as the fires in our state are incinerating everything, even the insects of the fields, in its path, we still find grace and meaning in the destruction.  There is no one as lonely as the fire fighter facing the flame and no one as lonely as the poet facing the empty page, in search of words.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already planted and yielding a fruited plain.



5 thoughts on “When August Burning Low

  1. we are about 100 miles west as the crow flies from the fires, so only smoke comes this way. We are dry enough to burn here on the west side of the Cascades, so it is only the fact that we rarely have lightening storms that spares us.


  2. Counterweight from an early 20th century NYC socialite: “The winter will be short, the summer long/ The autumn amber-hued, sunny and hot/Tasting of cider and scuppernog/All seasons sweet, but autumn best of all…We shall live well, we shall live very well” (“Wild Peaches” by Elinor Wylie)


  3. Much to ponder here, Emily, on the seemingly endless conflagration that is causing massive destruction and human misery among so many inhabitants of your lovely state – an area with striking natural beauty gifted by our Creator God. We confront here the power of Nature as she fills the skies with unearthly hues of flaming
    red and orange and with the searing forces that alter that landscape, sometimes in just a matter of minutes.
    We witness our puny human attempts to hold back the onslaught, but at the same time we acknowledge and salute the mighty heroic attempts of those who work (and sometimes die) to protect.

    Your faith-filled recognition that ‘…grace works to unite us, no matter our differences’ is what we must remember – not only in this current tragedy but in the man-made tragedies fed by our penchant for violence
    and hatred that so divide us. To remember and to believe that, hope and trust must be our prayer. To receive that gift of Grace, however, we must first unclench our fists and open our minds and hearts to allow it to penetrate our souls. There is really no other choice.


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