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The Sun and Fog contested
The Government of Day—
The Sun took down his Yellow Whip
And drove the Fog away—

I assume 'Yellow Whip' refers to the Whig Party, as yellow was one of the colours of the Whig Party and whip and Whig are almost homonyms.

According to Franklin's dating, this was written in 1872, post-civil war, but could it be a reference to the war, with the Fog perhaps being the confederacy? I know the Whigs do not quite fit with a civil war reading (I think the Whig Party was dissolved or almost dissolved by the time civil war broke out). However, "drove the Fog away-" makes me think of war.

Or could this be a specific reference to an election won by the Whigs? And if so, what is meant by the sun's "Yellow Whip" which "drove the Fog away"?

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  • This seems like a good reason for doubting Franklin's dating. What was his methodology for dating the poems?
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 10, 2022 at 20:32
  • @PeterShor Good question. Franklin writes in his variorum edition that he revised dating done earlier by Johnson, considering the kind of paper used for each fascicle (brand of paper, logos, watermarks, etc.) and changes in her handwriting over the decades. It is possible that his dating is wrong, and even if his dating is accurate, the poems may have been copied into a fascicle years after being written.
    – A. Goodier
    Nov 10, 2022 at 21:42

1 Answer 1

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The charm of this poem, as with many of Dickinson’s works, is in its gnomic and ambiguous quality, the way it can inspire different kinds of readings. So in this answer I’ll set out a few ways this poem has been read. (I was unable to find anyone giving an interpretation along the lines of the question, which seems to be a novelty.)

First, a psychoanalytic interpretation. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued that when the sun appears in Dickinson’s poems it represents a “Master/Father” figure. They don’t discuss ‘The Sun and the Fog Contested’ specifically, but it seems clear that under their interpretation, the yellow whip would represent a “masochistic sexual fascination”.

“As much of Noon as I could take”: the ambiguities in the word take, together with the paradoxical pleasure/pain associated with the noon sun, summarize Dickinson’s ambivalence toward the powerful male who plays (in different guises) so important a part in the theater of her verse. […] Looking into the scorching dazzle of the patriarchal sun—the enormous “masculine” light that controls and illuminates all public things-as-they-are—she must have felt blinded by its intensity, made aware, that is, both of her own comparative weakness and of her own ambivalence about looking. She notes an almost masochistic sexual fascination with “As much of Noon as I could take / Between my finite eyes,” even as she describes a passionately self-protective desire not to look for fear that the enormity of the patriarchal noon will “strike me dead.”

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979). The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 595–596. Yale University Press.

Second, a feminist interpretation. Under this interpretation, the yellow whip represents “a cruel act of male power”.

An even more forceful image of the sun’s victory over the poet occurs in P 1190 [‘The Sun and Fog Contested’]. This is how women are defeated, Dickinson tells us in her coded imagery: since he owns a “Yellow Whip,” the sun invariably wins the contest that decides which force will rule the day—or perhaps life itself. Dickinson’s own father did of course carry a whip (a practical necessity in the days of horse-driven carriages). Vinnie apparently told a story that Emily at one time registered fury and horror, “screaming to the top of her voice,” at their father’s whipping the family horse.†

Furthermore, as I have previously mentioned, the sun has long been associated with the phallus, several religious representations of the sun showing phallic figures emerging from the disk of the sun. The other contestant for the “Government of Day” is the fog, which softens the effects of the sun, affording privacy, moisture, and shadow. Since fog is a female image, an entity, composed of individual particles of dew, the sun’s lashing represents a cruel act of male power. If sunbeams slice away shadow and moisture in order to govern the day, they rob the poet of what she called the “vail” she needed.‡ At first glance another charming “nature poem,” ‘The Sun and Fog contested’ may be, rather, one of Dickinson’s most succinct criticisms of patriarchy.

Wendy Barker (1987). Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor, pp. 70–71. Southern Illinois University Press.

† Millicent Todd Bingam, ed. (1955). Emily Dickinson’s Home: Letters of Edward Dickinson and his Family, p. 235. New York: Harper. ‡ Thomas H. Johnson, ed. (1958). The Letters of Emily Dickinson, volume 1, p. 229. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Third, a biographical interpretation. Under this interpretation, the yellow whip is a metaphor for the painful brightness of the sun.

Emily Dickinson had a serious eye problem: like her mother and sister, she suffered from exotropia—that is, she was wall-eyed. This can be determined from ophthalmological analysis of the one extant photograph of her, taken when she was seventeen or eighteen. The symptoms of exotropia are eyestrain, blurring of vision, headaches, and photophobia (“great discomfort from bright lights … sunlight in particular”) […] For Dickinson, who in one poem speaks of a person eager for the close of a “too bright” day (#878), the intense light of the sun at noon could not be tolerated.

Kerry McSweeney (1998). The Language of the Senses: Sensory-Perceptual Dynamics in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson, pp. 148–150. Liverpool University Press.

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