On Choosing the Poems and Letter
Entomologist Louis C. Rutledge finds that more than 10 % of Dickinson’s poems refer to one or more arthropods.
This number includes poems that contain the arthropod names bee, beetle, borer, bumble bee, butterfly, caterpillar, centipede, cricket, fly, glowworm, gnat, insect, midge, monarch, moth, and spider, and those that contain the arthropod-related terms chrysalis, cobweb, cochineal, cocoon, entomology, gossamer, hive, honey, and malaria. The inclusion of “malaria” is fortuitous, because the transmission of malaria by mosquitoes was not known in Dickinson’s time.
But of all the arthropods Dickinson wrote about, bees were definitely her favorite (and ants her least favorite: Rutledge finds NO mention of these sturdy little workers in her poetry.) He goes so far as to call Dickinson, “The Arthropods’ Poet” and affirms:
To my knowledge, no other major poet has given so much attention to entomology as Emily Dickinson.
Nor is the symbolism of the bee straightforward. In “This Week in Biography,” we surveyed several scholarly approaches to the pervasive bee, all having to do with sexuality and spirituality. But the association goes further. In “The murmur of a Bee” (F217A, J155, 1861), for example, Dickinson’s speaker claims the bee’s buzzing “yieldeth” her “A Witchcraft” she cannot account for, a pagan power usually associated with women and, for Dickinson, with the influence on her of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (also mentioned in an article in this week’s Hampshire Gazette as a poet “unrivaled” among women; see “I think I was enchanted,” which also mentions bees – they are everywhere!).
In these many poems on bees, we also find more connections to Bowles. In Spring 1861, Dickinson sent this coded poem to him:
I stole them from
a Bee –
Because – Thee –
Sweet plea –
He pardoned me –
In the group of texts gathered for this week, we include the text of Dickinson’s letter to Bowles, a few poems about bees, one about clover in particular, and several poems written around 1862 that rehearse the longing for the return of a beloved man, as possible frames in which to read Dickinson’s letter.
Rutledge, Louis C. “Emily Dickinson’s Arthropods.” AMERICAN ENTOMOLOGIST. Summer 2003, 70-74.
Dear Mr. Bowles.
Vinnie is trading with a Tin peddler – buying Water pots for me to springle Geraniums with – when you get Home, next Winter, and Vinnie and Sue, have gone to the War.
Summer a'nt so long as it was, when we stood looking at it, before you went away, and when I finish August, we'll hop the Autumn, very soon – and then 'twill be Yourself. I dont know how many will be glad to see you, because I never saw your whole friends, but I have heard, that in large Cities – noted persons chose you. Though how glad those I know – will be, is easier told.
I tell you, Mr. Bowles, it is a Suffering, to have a sea – no care how Blue – between your Sould, and you. The Hills you used to love when you were in Northampton, miss their old lover, could they speak – and the puzzled look – deepens in Carlo's forehead, as Days go by, ad you never come.
I've learned to read the Steamer place – in Newspapers – now. It's 'most like shaking hands, with you – or more like your ringing at the door, when Sue says you will call.
We reckon – your coming by the Fruit.
When the Grape gets by – and the Pippin, and the Chestnut – when the Days are a little short by the clock – and a little long by the want – when the sky has new Red Gowns – and a Purple Bonnet – then we say, you will come – I am glad that kind of time, goes by.
It is easier to look behind at a pain, than to see it coming. A Soldier called – a Morning ago, and asked for a Nosegay, to take to Battle. I suppose he thought we kept an Aquarium.
How sweet it must be to one to come Home – whose Home is in so many Houses – and every Heart a "Best Room." I mean you, Mr. Bowles.
Sue gave me the paper, to write on – so when the writing tires you – play it is Her, and "Jackey" – and that will rest your eyes – for have not the Clovers, names, to the Bees?
Link to DEA transcript. [Note that clicking on Johnson’s note for this letter takes you to the note for letter 266.] Originally in Amherst College, ink. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Letters (1894), 207-208, in part.
In his note, Johnson clarifies the type of stationery Dickinson refers to and the use of “Jackey” as a nickname for baby Ned. He also says: “ED’s identification with issues of the day was slight throughout her life. Her remark about the soldier here is one of her relatively few comments on any aspect of the Civil War.” This notion has been widely discredited. In fact, this letter makes another cryptic reference to the “War:” “when you get Home, next Winter, and Vinnie and Sue, have gone to the War.” The comma after “Sue” makes the object of “have gone” unclear; were Vinnie and Sue actually considering acting as nurses?
Likewise, the reference to the soldier asking for a “nosegay” is puzzling. Several scholars, including Betsy Erkkila, cite this as an example of Dickinson’s class privilege and snobbery. But taken in the context of the whole letter, it seems more about dealing with pain. Dickinson is “looking behind” at the pain of her separation from a man she calls “her Soul,” while the Soldier is looking forward to his separation from family and friends, or the loss of his comrades.
The letter illustrates how Dickinson represents her loss and longing, as well as measuring the passage of time, through natural imagery. She anticipates the Fall and Winter by imagining watering geraniums she will bring indoors. She anthropomorphizes the Pelham Hills and her dog Carlo as missing “their old lover.” Even reading the “steamer” notices reporting Bowles’s travels becomes a handshake or his ringing of her doorbell. The autumn sky gets “new Red Gowns – and a Purple Bonnet.” As for the bee reference at the end, some of the poems discussed below offer insights into why and how Dickinson associated Samuel Bowles with bees.
The +maddest dream – recedes -
The Heaven we chase –
Like the June Bee – before
the Schoolboy –
Invites the Race –
Stoops to an Easy Clover –
Dips – Evades –
Teazes – deploys –
Then – to the Royal Clouds –
+Spreads his light pinnace –
Heedless of the Boy –
Staring – +defrauded – at the
Mocking sky –
Homesick for steadfast Honey –
Ah, the Bee
Flies not – that brews
That rare variety!
+nearest +lifs +bewildered
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles, Houghton Library – (69a). Includes 33 poems, written in ink, ca. 1860-1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, 68 (October 1891), 445; Poems (1891), 24.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 14 in the first place, sometime around early 1862. She also included it in her first letter to Higginson on April 15 with a different first line: “The nearest dream recedes unrealized.” We focus in this post on the bee imagery. Does the poem's description of the failure to achieve one’s “Heaven” announce a more pervasive theme of striving in vain for the utmost (maddest dream) object of one’s desire? Does the word “maddest” also suggest the possibility of madness through that failure?
“The Heaven we chase” is ambiguous; it could mean either, we pursue a conventional religious notion of “Heaven” as salvation and immortality, or our individual versions of “Heaven,” which might not be religious at all. In fact, the speaker likens this quest to the quotidian sight of a schoolboy racing after a “June Bee.” Both bee and boy are filled with the vitality of early summer and the hint of sexual energy appears in the image of the bee, who “Stoops to an Easy Clover.” Even as the boy chases the bee, the bee has time to pollinate a clover described as “easy” and willing. The bee handily evades the boy by heading into the “mocking sky.” What is it the boy wants with the bee? Catching it will sting him. Or does he hope to be led to the hive and its honey?
The last stanza suggests as much, though the “steadfast Honey” it invokes takes on symbolic connotations. It is a “rare variety” that ordinary bees cannot “brew,” a word that connects bees and honey with an intoxication that is more than physical, as in “I taste a liquor never brewed.” The word “Homesick” is the emotion of longing Dickinson associated with bees –– and one she fervently hoped the absent Bowles felt about Amherst, his home-away-from-home.
If you were coming in the Fall,
I'd brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a
As Housewives do, a Fly.
If I could see you in a
I'd wind the months in balls –
And put them each in
For fear the numbers fuse –
If only Centuries, delayed,
I'd count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers
Into Van Dieman's Land.
If certain, when this life was out –
That your's and mine, should be –
I'd toss it yonder, like a
And take Eternity –
But, now, uncertain of the
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the
Goblin Bee –
That will not state -
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst – Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 85 – I dreaded that first robin, so – asc:17631 – p. 8. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Poems (1890), 48-49, with the alternative adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 17 in the tenth place about summer of 1862, around the time she wrote her letter to Bowles. It addresses a similar scenario: a speaker waiting for the return of a beloved. It is interesting to compare the tone and imagery of the poem and the letter. Agnieszka Salska perceptively notes about the poem:
the succession of provisional situations presented in the first part of the poem seems invented to “design” a void, a tauntingly indefinite reality. The multiplied conditions form stages in the mind’s effort to cope with cosmic doubt.
The series of conditional phrases hypothesizing the possibility of increasingly longer separations moves from the insouciance of a housewife brushing off flies to a believer tossing away life “like a Rind” and choosing “Eternity” instead. As long as she can be certain of an end point, the speaker is willing to wait. The reference to “Van Dieman’s Land,” up until 1856 the name of Tasmania, an island now part of Australia, registers the growing intensity of the speaker’s pain. This island was the site of an infamous penal colony: for what does this speaker feel like she deserves to be punished?
In the last stanza, the speaker expresses the unbearability of uncertainty in the memorable image of a “Goblin Bee – / That will not state – it’s sting.” Dickinson’s Lexicon lists six occurrences of the word “Goblin,” all of them connoting nightmarish horror, some associated with drinking or sipping, as bees are wont to do in Dickinson poems. The true horror of this zombie bee, who refuses to disclose the magnitude of its “sting”/the extent of the separation, stands out against the backdrop of Dickinson’s more usual lush and sensuous bee imagery.
Salska, Agnieszka. The poetry of the Central Consciousness: Whitman and Dickinson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985, 143-44.
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
I envy Seas, whereon He
I envy Spokes of Wheels
Of Chariots, that Him convey –
I envy +Crooked Hills
That +gaze opon His journey –
How easy all can see
What is +forbidden utterly
+ As Heaven – unto me!
I envy Nests of Sparrows –
That dot His distant Eaves;
The +wealthy Fly, opon His Pane –
The happy – happy Leaves –
That just abroad His Window
Have Summer's leave to play –
The Ear Rings of Pizarro
Could not obtain for me –
I envy Light – that wakes Him –
And Bells – that boldly + ring
To tell Him it is Noon,
Myself – be Noon to Him –
Yet interdict – my Blossom –
And abrogate – my Bee –
Lest Noon +in everlasting night –
Drop Gabriel – and me –
+Speechless hills +grow along +denied +As Eden +Happy +Come +down
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet VI, Fascicle 18. Includes 13 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (25a). First published in Poems (1896), 95-96, with the alternative for line 4 adopted.
Around autumn 1862, Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 18 in the 7th place, sometime after she wrote her letter to Samuel Bowles. As with the previous poem, it rehearses some of the elements of Bowles’s absence in remarkably imaginative anthropomorphic terms that include bees, but ups the ante.
The speaker claims to envy a series of natural objects that interact with and especially that can “see” her beloved. By contrast, she is denied and forbidden this vision, which she calls “Heaven” or “Eden.” She envies the seas her beloved rides on (which could be a reference to Bowles's travels), and the “Crooked Hills” that gaze upon him echo similar images in Dickinson’s letter to Bowles. The word “Chariot” feels melodramatic and ironic, as does “the wealthy fly, opon his Pane” and the pleonasm and pun in the images of “the happy – happy Leaves” that “Have Summer’s leave to play.” Though pain/pane evokes seeing and “leave” suggests permission, which this speaker does not feel she has. The image of the “Ear Rings of Pizarro” as a measure of wealth evokes conquest and perseverance; Pizarro failed twice to subdue the powerful Inca empire before he finally succeeded.
The sense of prohibition and obstacle climaxes in the last stanza, where bee and blossom appear in relation to interdiction and abrogation of love? Intimacy? Sexual and/or spiritual fulfillment through reunion with the beloved? Notice that the speaker says: “my Blossom … my Bee” rather than assigning them opposing roles in the often gendered dynamic of desire. Dickinson’s Lexicon glosses “Gabriel” not as the archangel messenger of the birth of Christ, but “Gabriel Lajuenesse; Evangeline's betrothed; male protagonist who dies in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's narrative poem Evangeline.”
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
Although I put away his life –
An Ornament too grand
For Forehead low as mine, to wear,
This might have been the Hand
That sowed the flower, he preferred –
Or smoothed a homely pain,
Or pushed the pebble from his
Or played his chosen tune –
On Lute the least – the latest –
But just his ear could know
That whatsoe'er delighted it,
I never would let go –
The foot to bear his errand –
A little Boot I know –
Would leap abroad like Antelope –
With just the grant to do –
His weariest Commandment –
A sweeter to obey,
Than "Hide and Seek" –
Or skip to Flutes –
Or all Day, chase the Bee –
Your Servant, Sir, will weary –
The Surgeon, will not come –
The World, will have it's own – to do –
The Dust, will vex your Fame –
The Cold will force your tightest
Some Febuary Day,
But say my Apron bring the
To make your Cottage gay –
That I may take that promise
To Paradise, with me –
To teach the Angels, avarice,
You, Sir, taught first – to me.
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIII, Mixed Fasciles, Houghton Library – (64b). Includes 27 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 160-61, as eight quatrains.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 20 in the tenth position, around Autumn 1862, at the same time as the previous poem. But rather than exploring the agony of endless separation, this poem explores the speaker's emotions after she has renounced the beloved and, at the same time, fantasizes about what their union might have been. Suzanne Juhasz comments:
Surely, what Dickinson is portraying here, emphasizing by exaggeration, is the traditional female role, by which she is both attracted and repelled. … This poem shows her first rejecting it; then experiencing it imaginatively, in the subjunctive mood.
Jane Eberwein is more emphatic:
Inspected closely, this love-in-a-cottage picture seems to scream slavery!
Note Dickinson’s use of the bee reference in stanza 5. The speaker says, it would be “sweeter [to] obey … His weariest Commandment” than to play
"Hide and Seek" –
Or skip to Flutes –
Or all Day, chase the Bee –
All three of these "commandments" allude to childhood games and pursuits. In “The maddest dream recedes unrealized,” discussed above, the schoolboy who chases the bee feels “defrauded” and/or “bewildered” when he cannot follow it to its trove of honey. Perhaps the same sense of frustration and limitation imbues the “commandment” to submission and service as well as the speaker’s final, bitter mood of “avarice.”
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: University of Amherst Press, 1985, 115.
Juhasz, Suzanne. The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of the Mind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983, 121, 127.
There is a flower that
Bees prefer –
And Butterflies – desire –
To gain the Purple Democrat
The Humming Bird – aspire –
And Whatsoever Insect pass –
A Honey bear away
Proportioned to his several
And her – capacity –
Her face be rounder than
And ruddier than the Gown
Of Orchis in the Pasture –
Or Rhododendron – worn –
She doth not wait for June –
Before the World be Green –
Her sturdy little Countenance
Against the Wind – be seen –
Contending with the Grass –
Near Kinsman to Herself –
For privilege of Sod and Sun –
Sweet Litigants for Life –
And when the Hills be full –
And newer fashions blow –
Doth not retract a single
For pang of jealousy –
Her Public – be the Noon –
Her Providence – the Sun –
Her Progress – by the Bee -
In sovreign – Swerveless Tune –
The Bravest – of the Host –
Surrendering – the last –
Nor even of Defeat – aware –
When cancelled by the Frost –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XVII, Mixed Fasciles, Houghton Library – (94a). Includes 25 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1890), 85-86.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 31 in the 13th position sometime around the second half of 1863, according to Franklin; Johnson dates it to 1862. Higginson and Todd included it in the first volume of poems they published after Dickinson’s death under the title, “Purple Clover.” We include it because of the light it sheds on the relationship of clover and bee, the reference that ends Dickinson’s letter to Bowles.
Usually regarded as a charming account of “nature,” if read in terms of Dickinson’s anthropomorphism, it is quite a bit more. The clover, described as a “Purple Democrat,” does not have favorites, and though the “Bees prefer” it and “Butterflies – desire” it, the clover offers “Honey” or pollen “Proportioned to … Whatsoever Insect pass” and their “capacity.” Susan Korfeld boldly renames this brave flower
Red Communist, for the clover operates according to the slogan popularized by Karl Marx in 1875, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
The clover is also stalwart and a proponent of collaboration rather than competition, blooming before June, working with grass to share turf and resources, not withdrawing when showier flowers bloom, and not “surrendering” even to the frosts of winter. That is, the clover promotes equality and availability.
This little champion of abundance in the meadow is purple, the color Dickinson associated with Bowles. By that association, he would be the clover with the honey awaiting the attentions of the industrious, promiscuous bees/women who flock around him. Given the variation of gendered pronouns and attribution of activity and receptivity in the bee and flower imagery, we are free to understand these symbols as multi-directional and multivalent.
Kornfeld, Susan. The prowling Bee. 19 June 2018.