I thought if I could only live
Till that first Shout got by –
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me –
I dared not meet the Daffodils –
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own –
I wished the Grass would hurry –
So when ’twas time to see –
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me –
I could not bear the Bees
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where
What word had they, for me?
They’re here, though; not a
creature failed –
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me –
The Queen of Calvary –
Each one salutes me, as he
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgement
Of their unthinking Drums –
Link to EDA manuscript. [Image of first page of ms. not available.] Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 85. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Poems (1891) titled “In Shadow,” 128-29.
Franklin dates this poem to summer 1862; Dickinson copied it into Fascicle 17 and placed it first. It is about the coming of spring and the speaker’s “dread” at the thought of the rebirth of the natural world because she feels herself to be “The Queen of Calvary,” ruler of the hill west of Jerusalem where Jesus died on the cross. As Claire Malroux notes in her survey of Dickinson’s “Interior Atlas,” this
word haunts a group of poems of the year 1862, in a sense becomes her signature: ‘Queen of Calvary,’ ‘Empress of Calvary’ … repeated eleven times.
It is a “Cry of pain and enormous pride woven together,” a way Dickinson “proclaims herself the emulator of Christ and shares his Passion.”
Yet, what is the connection to spring? The resurrection, of course, symbolized by the rebirth of the world. Notice the appearance of “yellow,” a color St. Armand links to spring in Dickinson’s “mystic day.” Still, the speaker “dreads” the signs of rebirth, and even the coming of the bird she identifies with as a singer, because of an over-powering grief. Li-hsin Hsu links Dickinson’s description of the yellow daffodils as one of the offending harbingers of spring to William Wordsworth’s famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1807). Their
piercing foreignness … embodies the optimism of Wordsworth’s poetry—its self-proclaimed poetic therapy.
Hsu notes that Dickinson’s poem was written during the Civil War, and questions how Wordsworth’s recommendation could be helpful at such moment of personal and national trauma. He points to Richard Brantley’s reading of the poem’s conclusion as expressing a form of Dickinson’s “late-Romantic hope.” But the allusions to “Plumes,” “bereavement” and “Drums” in the last stanza suggest funerals, perhaps even the pomp and despair of Frazar Stearns’ funeral.
At this time, and especially after the death of Prince Albert in England in 1861 when Queen Victoria plunged the nation into official mourning for years, mourning became a public art and ritual. It was customary to decorate coffins, horses, hearses and attendants with ostrich plumes.
Susan Leiter calls this poem “a virtuoso feat of tonal balance:”
While evoking grief, her resistance to and alienation from spring’s rebirth in striking imagery, she manages at the same time to undercut her dread and mock her own effrontery at imagining her individual woes could interfere with the ‘unthinking’ rhythms of the seasons.
It is possible to read this poem in light of the opening of The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
- Brantley, Richard. “Dickinson’s Signature Conundrum.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 16.1 (2007): 27–52, 28.
- Hsu, Li-Hsin. “‘The light that never was on sea or land’: William Wordsworth in America and Emily Dickinson’s ‘Frostier’” Style.” The Emily Dickinson Journal xxv 2 (2016): 24-47, 31.
- Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 95.
- Malroux, Claire. “The Interior Atlas.” trans. Marilyn Hacker. The Emily Dickinson Journal, xv. 2 (2006): 10-13, 13.