On Choosing the Poems
Dickinson was exquisitely attuned to the natural world, the changing of the seasons, and how they manifested themselves in her particular place. For example, in “The robin’s my criterion for tune”(F256A, 285), dated to 1862, the speaker locates herself in her regional geography, a specificity that “teaches” her how to see, understand, and “sing” about her world. That is why the robin, so particularly identified with the coming of spring in the US Northeast and the greening of the world, is her “criterion for tune.”
While this might limit the speaker to provinciality, it links her to “The Queen” (of England? who likewise sees the world through geographically tinted lenses) and defines and grounds her:
None but the Nut – October
Because – through dropping it,
The Seasons flit – I’m taught –
Without the Snow’s Tableau
Winter, were lie – to me –
Because I see – New Englandly –
The Queen, discerns like me –
Indeed, the robin is Dickinson’s symbol for the rebirth and blossoming of Spring, although this bird does not appear on St. Armand’s chart of Dickinson’s “mystic day,” discussed in this week’s post.
We could have focused our cluster of spring poems entirely around the robin, and though we feature quite a few of those, we also include several other poems that expand on the symbolic meanings of spring. One of those could have been “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”(F314B, J254) , which, though it never mentions spring, features a bird singing of the emotion associated with that season. In another poem, written much later in 1877, Dickinson captures this psychological state of “expectation” St. Armand links with spring. Though Dickinson was a matron of 47 when she wrote it, she manages to capture the erotic eagerness of a boy barely out of his teens.
March is the
Month of Expectation –
The Things we
do not know
We feel it by
Are coming now
We try to show
But +Awkward Joy + pompous [Joy] silly joy
as his first
Betrays a Boy –
She felt herself supremer –
A Raised – Etherial Thing!
Henceforth – for Her – what
Meanwhile – Her wheeling King –
Trailed – slow – along the Orchards –
His haughty – spangled Hems –
Leaving a new nescessity!
The want of Diadems!
The Morning – fluttered – staggered –
Felt feebly – for Her Crown –
Her unannointed forehead –
Henceforth – Her only One!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXVII, fascicle 10, ca. 1860-1861. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1891), 116, as four quatrains.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 10, which is dated to 1861. It is a good introduction to Dickinson’s symbolic use of spring. In this allegory, which could refer to a number of situations, the sun’s merest touch of the morning raises the speaker to such a height that she feels “Life would all be spring.” That is, existence would be charged with the expectation of all that spring brings to a world clutched by a recalcitrant New England winter. Dickinson amplifies that spring mind-set as “supremer” (than what?), “a Raised – Etherial Thing!” and “Holiday.” It’s important to note that Dickinson underlines all these words and also adds an exclamation point. Much emphasis.
But, the allegory continues, the sun is “haughty” and has “spangled Hems,” words Dickinson links to Susan Dickinson and her penchant for trendy luxuries like sequined dresses, according to Judith Farr. Showy and aloof, the Sun does not “crown” the morning—that is, give her real “diadems,” or authentic signs of royalty, worth, independence (see our post on Entitle)—or salvation, if we are reading this as an allegory of religious aspiration.
And so morning ends up with an “unannointed forehead.” This is only the second instance of this unusual word in Dickinson’s canon; the first occurs in the poem from which our project takes its title, “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat? (F401A, J365). In our discussion of that poem we commented:
To be “unanointed” (notice that Dickinson spells it with two n’s) means to be unconsecrated or not authorized by God or a higher power.
So here, the morning wants to be authorized by the higher power of the sun, but is disappointed. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read this poem as “almost a darkened revision of ‘The Daisy follows soft the Sun.’” Can morning herself bring on the rebirth that is spring, or does it always require an external fertilizing, masculine power?
- Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1979, 601-02.
- Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 41.
The Skies cant keep their secret!
They tell it to the Hills –
The Hills just tell the Orchards –
And they – the Daffodils!
A Bird – by chance – that goes that
Soft overhears the whole –
If I should bribe the little Bird –
Who knows but she would tell?
I think I wont – however –
It’s finer – not to know –
If Summer were an axiom –
What sorcery had snow?
So keep your secret – Father!
I would not – if I could –
Know what the Sapphire Fellows, do,
In your new-fashioned world!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XV, Fascicle 9, ca. 1862. First published in Poems (1891), 131. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
This is another poem dated to early spring 1861 that captures the joyous expectation of the season. It is charming and fairly straightforward but it touches on a subject that pervades Dickinson poetry as well as her life: her attitude towards secrecy and wanting or deferring knowledge.
In the poem, all the parts of the natural world are expressive; they speak and tell their “secret” to each other, but not to the speaker of the poem, who is left out of the knowing—or, as she reveals in stanza three, deliberately chooses not to know. She considers bribing a bird, who “by chance” has “overheard” the excited conversation, but decides not to. Why?
It’s finer – not to know–
If Summer were an axiom –
What sorcery had snow?
“Axiom,” according to Dickinson’s Webster’s, is
1. A self-evident truth, or a proposition whose truth is so evident at first sight, that no process of reasoning or demonstration can make it plainer; as, “the whole is greater than a part.” – Johnson. Encyc.
2. An established principle in some art or science, a principle received without new proof.
If summer became a “truth” or “established principle,” then snow or winter would have no “magic, enchantment, witchcraft,” with a whiff of “evil” (Webster’s). But doesn’t summer always follow spring in the natural cycle of the seasons? Is Dickinson cautioning us, and herself, not to get too comfortable in the certainty of the natural realm?
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
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 about the term “Calvary,” 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.
Of Life? ‘Twere odd I fear a thing
That comprehendeth me
In one or two existences –
+Just as the case may be –
Of Resurrection? Is the East
Afraid to trust the Morn
With her fastidious forehead?
As soon impeach my Crown!
+As Deity decree
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIII, Mixed Fasciles, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1890), 135, with both alternatives adopted.
This poem is dated to summer 1862 and was copied into Fascicle 16. Although it does not directly refer to spring, it connects several images we have been tracing in those clusters of meaning.
Maryanne Garbowsky, who reads Dickinson’s poetry for its agoraphobia, observes:
In each stanza, the speaker asks the question—first of death, then of life, and finally of resurrection—and in each instance she denies her fears. [The poem] asks a question the poet may have asked herself as she became more phobic and housebound.
In the third stanza, the speaker questions her fear of the “resurrection” in images we see in “The sun just touched” (F246A, J232), discussed earlier. She asks,
Is the East
Afraid to trust the Morn
with her fastidious forehead?
Recall that this forehead was “unannointed” [sic] the earlier poem. The speaker answers with some pride:
As soon impeach my Crown!
And yet, does she protest too much?
Garbowsky, Maryanne. The House without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia. Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989, 109.
The Robin is the One
That overflow the Noon
With her cherubic
An April but begun –
The Robin is the One
That speechless from
Submit that Home –
And Sanctity, are best
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #set 92. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published by Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, 68 (October 1891), 450, from his copy ([B]); also Poems (1891), 117.
Dickinson sent this poem about spring to Susan Dickinson around 1863, but it was lost; she transcribed the copy in Set 92 around late 1865. It is written in the short hymn meter, with lines of 6686 syllables and a rhyme scheme of aaba coordinated by the repetition of the word “one” in the first line of each stanza. The poem is also notable for using a plural verb for a doubly singular noun: “Robin” and “one.” Dickinson employs this technique to produce a startling effect in other poems: for example, “a myriad Daisy” in “In lands I never saw – they say” (F108A, J124) and “I wish I were a Hay” in “The grass so little has to do” (F379A, J333).
Here, the Robin is indelibly linked to spring, to March and April, to singing, and also to “speechlessness.” Is there a slightly resentful tone in the last stanza, in which the “speechless” Robin smugly
submit that Home
And Sanctity, are best
Could the curious doubling of the verbs invoke Dickinson and Susan, the dear friend and poetic interlocutor whom Dickinson often represents as a bird, and could it allude to Susan’s silence and preoccupation at this time with home and children, a “certainty” of intimacy Dickinson would never have in the same way again?
Lair, Robert L. “Emily Dickinson’s Fracture of Grammar: Syntactic Ambiguity in Her Poems.” The Analysis of Literary Texts: Current Trends in Methodology. Ed. Randolph D. Pope. Ypsilanti, MI: Bilingual/Editorial Bilingüe, 1980, 158-64, 163.
No Notice gave She, but
a Change –
No Message, but a sigh –
For Whom, the Time
did not +suffice
That she + should specify.
She was not warm, though
Nor scrupulous of cold
Though Rime by Rime, the
Opon Her +Bosom piled –
+Of shrinking ways -she
did not fright
Though all the Village
But held Her gravity
And met the gaze – direct –
And when adjusted like
In careful fitted Ground
Unto the Everlasting Spring
And hindered but a Mound
Her +Warm return, if
so she +chose –
And We – imploring drew –
Removed our invitation by
As +Some She never
+remain +could +Petals •
softness +Forebore her fright
+straight – good – quick –
safe +signed +Us
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXX, Fascicle 38, ca. 1863. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poem (1935), 124, with the alternative for line 9 adopted.
This poem illustrates Dickinson’s fully spiritual meaning of spring. It describes the death of a woman, who expired almost imperceptibly, “no notice … no message, but a sigh.” In the poem, the dead woman persists through summer and winter. It is not until stanza four that she encounters spring and is transformed. She is “adjusted like a seed / In careful fitted Ground / Unto the Everlasting Spring” and her “warm return” comes with a flurry of variants: “straight,” “good,” “quick,” “safe.” But, in what way is she returned? Is she resurrected? As an elect soul going to Heaven? In the minds and memories of her friends? The last stanza is a study in ambiguity.
In last week’s post, in relation to the death of Frazar Stearns, we discussed Dickinson’s focus on the way of death, especially a person’s last words, attitude, and demeanor as offering a glimpse of the character of immortality.
Diana Fuss compares Dickinson’s poetic treatment of these last moments of death to her contemporaries, women poets like Helen Hunt Jackson, Lydia Sigourney and Frances Harper, who all
exploit the personal and political potential of last words to command attention and to provoke response.
Dickinson, she finds,
uses the deathbed address not to claim agency but to relinquish it.
These poems, like “No notice gave She,” emphasize
the radical privacy of death. … Dickinson’s dead protect their secrets.
Jesse Curran takes a different tack, seeing Dickinson’s allusions to breath (here, the “sigh”) as a sign of her meditative poetics, which Curran links to
recent critical developments in sustainability studies, as well as to the global-ecological theory that underlies its emergence
and focuses on air as the medium connecting us all.
- Curran, Jesse. “Transcendental Meditation: Sustainability Studies and Dickinson’s Breath.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 22, 2, 2013, pp. 86-106, 86, 93.
- Fuss, Diane. “Last Words.” ELH 76 (2009) 877–910, 883-84.
Additional poems about spring written at other times: