Emily Dickinson’s “The Way to know the Bobolink” may be a child’s game of nicknames and hide-and-seek. The poem’s first stanza sets up the rules to find the bird/poet, Bobolink, among other birds. There are clues to infer her identity.

The Way to know the Bobolink
From every other Bird
Precisely as the Joy of him –
Obliged to be inferred.

Of impudent Habiliment
Attired to defy,
Impertinence subordinate
At times to Majesty –

Of Sentiments seditious
Amenable to Law –
As Heresies of Transport
Or Puck’s Apostacy –

Extrinsic to Attention
Too intimate with Joy –
He compliments Existence
Until allured away

By Seasons or his Children –
Adult and urgent grown –
Or unforeseen Aggrandizement
Or, happily, Renown –

By Contrast certifying
The Bird of Birds is gone –
How nullified the Meadow –
Her Sorcerer withdrawn!

In addition to playing the Bobolink, the poet is also Puck, from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, a trickster who describes at the beginning, the game, its rules and what seems like the only clue, the “Joy of him”, to find the “Bird of Birds”.

Then, clues within clues in the real game of how to recognize joy itself. 

Joy wears immodest, bold clothes that disregard expectations. (White dresses, for instance, assumed by society for brides, might be worn every day by an unmarried woman.) Clothing intended to be impertinent is only subordinate to the majesty it represents.  “Of impudent Habiliment/Attired to defy,/Impertinence subordinate/At times to Majesty —”.

Joy also stirs up rebellion, though not the kind that is against the law.  It conveys beliefs contrary to general thought, like Puck, who chortled, ”Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!” after he abandoned others expectations: “Of Sentiments seditious/Amenable to Law —/As Heresies of Transport/Or Puck’s Apostasy —”.

Joy is intrinsic to the Bobolink and to poetry, “too intimate”.  Attention, or recognition, to one who produces is unessential (“extrinsic”) for production. What is essential is joy in life, “He compliments Existence”.

If time and affairs of the world cause joy to disappear, “By Seasons or his Children —/Adult and urgent grown”, joy may be forgotten by the powerful.  

If fame, “unforeseen Aggrandizement”, occurs, (the sought-after circumstance of notoriety, “or, happily, Renown”), the likelihood is that its source will be sadly contrasted when “The Bird of Birds is gone —”.  

Then, life, “the Meadow”, which is the playground for poet or the joyful bird, will no longer be a place where its “Sorcerer” runs ’round.


Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way