On this Valentine’s Day, spend a few homeschool minutes with a famous literary Valentine: the earliest poem we have that was written by the great American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886).
Addressed to an unnamed young man when Dickinson was about 20, the poem’s message is simple: everything in the universe eventually pairs up, you know, and my five friends and I are all charming single ladies—so don’t dilly dally, young man: pick one of us!
Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine
Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!
Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap’st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There’s Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower—
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum—
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!
You can just enjoy “Awake ye muses nine” as a clever literary Valentine on this Valentine’s Day, of course, but you can also use it to teach much more. First, show your students that the whole poem is written in couplets—rhyming pairs of lines that are delightful to read aloud. The meter is not entirely regular, but the first two lines, which introduce the poem, are perfect examples of iambic hexameter. (Most of the other lines in the poem have 13 syllables rather than 12 and they exhibit a fair amount of syncopation, just like in music.) Who are the “muses nine”? Your recommended River Houses dictionary (riverhouses.org/books) will tell you, with a whole bonus sidebar on the history of the world “muse.” And such lovely vocabulary throughout: strain, damsel, swain, consort, precept, pensive, eventide, coquettish, bower—truly wonderful words all!
What lovely literary discoveries have you made in your homeschool lately?
¶ Explore more: The website of the Poetry Foundation (poetryfoundation.org) includes biographies and examples of the work of many major poets, including Emily Dickinson, suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers.