On Choosing the Poems
As mentioned in this week’s Overview, our cluster of poems explores some of the darker aspects of Dickinson’s inventive and insightful garden politics: doubts, stasis, futility, estrangement, decentering the human, solitude, loss of control and loss of belief.
I should mention that, for the assignment in Melissa Zeiger’s class “Garden Politics,” we offered students a range of poems dated to the period of 1861-63 to write about. It is revealing that students clustered around poems of passion and implied sexuality (“Come slowly –Eden!”) and anthropocentric decentering (“Within my Garden, rides a Bird”) in the first grouping, and questioning and existential doubt (“Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre”) in this week’s selections.
My Garden – like the Beach –
Denotes there be – a Sea –
That's Summer –
Such as These – the Pearls
She fetches – such as Me
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIX, Fascicle 22. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (106c,d). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 23-24, from a transcript of A (a tr253), with the alternative adopted.
This short poem sits at the bottom of a page in Emily Dickinson’s Fascicle 22. Written in 1862, this fascicle, containing 23 poems, has been read as Dickinson’s confrontation with the prevalent binaristic social norms of her time and place; norms that stifle her (Wohlpart). Instead, she wants to conceive of an interconnected world, like the nature she sees around her (55). Poems such as “I dwell in possibility” and “Of being is a bird” articulate Dickinson’s belief in boundlessness, her penchant for shifts and slants exemplified by nature and poetry. We thus must pay special attention to the various ways in which the poems in this fascicle imagine their non-binary worlds.
Dickinson’s garden may be a productive place to look. “My garden – like the beach” displaces Dickinson’s garden to a seashore, a site where boundaries are indeterminate. The categories of “sea” and “land” cannot be used to make meaning of a beach, which is constituted by the interaction of the two. Through this poem, we can think of the garden, usually fenced in, as also similarly liminal, for example, in between the domestic and the public world for a home garden. The garden—brought to life by humans, bees, birds, seeds, weeds, weedicide—renders the separation of “nature” and “culture” in vain. It is impossible to determine which parts of the garden are created by natural agents, and which by human-cultural ones.
By taking her garden to the beach, Dickinson gestures towards the indeterminacy of her world and her poetry. It seems that she does not see her surroundings as concrete, and we should similarly read for the lack of rigid meanings in her work. The beach–garden becomes a material/metaphorical location from which to understand the inbetween-ness and estrangement both in and of Dickinson’s poetry.
But even from the blurry line constituted by a beach, the solid expanse of the sea is visible—the beach “denotes” a sea beyond it. As the beach hints at the sea, Dickinson’s garden hints towards something like a Summer. Like a Sea, Summer is at the horizon of Dickinson’s garden, lapping at the flowerbeds— representing fullness, intense light and heat, wholeness and polarity. The garden does not have place for a Summer that is like the Sea, and so the denotations of “Sea”/”Summer” materialize in the poem/garden through what they leave behind—pearls/pearl-like-flowers. At the end, and in the midst of this traffic of hyphens and puzzling displacements, Dickinson too comes to be. It seems that as she gardens, she too is fetched into this world by the garden.
This short poem has neither been published much nor has it received substantial critical attention. Domhnall Mitchell writes that this is because with only a single comparison, it is deemed more like a verbal sketch than a complete poem (100). As such, perhaps it cannot be “decoded” into a coherent poetic story; but in its somewhat tangential particularity (none of the other poems in the fascicle are about gardens), like a footnote, it allows for meanings to be opened up. The single comparison of the garden to a beach can multiply the ways other poems in this fascicle can be read. For example, the beach–garden (fenced) can tilt our understanding of the first poem in the fascicle, “A prison gets to be a friend,” about accepted structures of social norms (prisons)—so that the prison (society) becomes not just an impenetrable confining space, but also a (/n indeterminate) space that produces subjectivities.
Fascicle 22 is noteworthy because unlike the other booklets, its pages were not nested while sewing; rather each folded sheet is stacked on top of each other and then sewn together (Mitchell 86). The poems in this collection are thus in contact but not bound together; perhaps they are encouraged to unravel.
Mitchell, Domhnall. “Precincts of Play: Fascicle 22.” Dickinson's Fascicles: A Spectrum of Possibilities. Eds. Paul Crumbley and Eleanor Elson Heginbotham. Ohio State University Press, 2014, 86–105.
Wohlpart, A. James. “A New Redemption: Emily Dickinson's Poetic in Fascicle 22 and ‘I Dwell in Possibility’.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 66, no. 1, 2001, pp. 50-83.
A Visitor in Marl –
Who influences Flowers –
Till they are orderly as Busts –
And Elegant – as Glass
Who visits in the Night –
And just before the Sun –
Concludes his glistening interview –
Caresses – and is gone –
But whom his fingers touched –
And where his feet have run –
And whatsoever Mouth he kissed –
Is as it had not been –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXI, Fascicle 27. Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 47.
This is, of course, one of Emily Dickinson’s famous “hidden center” poems, where the subject of the poem is never stated, and it is possible to misconstrue the subject entirely. The subject of this poem is almost definitely “frost,” but that conclusion is far less interesting than the way the subject, referred to only as “he,” affects the poem’s flowers. For the purposes of this comment, however, I will refer to the poem’s subject as Frost.
In the first stanza, Frost overpowers the flowers and transforms them from loose, free forms to rigid, controlled ones. But in the first two lines, it’s easy for the reader to miss his controlling presence; “Marl,” instead of meaning marble (as I initially and foolishly assumed), refers to calcified soil. The fact that the soil is calcified begins to hint at Frost’s paralyzing effects, but it can also merely state the poem’s setting: the earth, where the flowers grow. Likewise, the word “influences” begins to imply a controlling force that is shaping these flowers, but also alludes to a noun definition of the word “influence,” which can mean a stream of leaves or a flow of color; this too can do the double work of setting the garden scene and slipping a subtly controlling menace into it.
The last two lines, however, make no more bones about it; Frost is changing the flowers in a meaningful way, turning them from living things capable of movement – remember that for Emily Dickinson, plants had much more agency than we might ascribe to them – into something non-living, if beautiful. They become “busts,” which are artful and respectable – an association only strengthened by the word “elegant” in the following line – but not alive and possessing no agency. One has to wonder – or I do, at least – whether Emily Dickinson saw her own poetry in the same way; it, too, transforms the vibrant, living garden into a crystallized form of beauty which readers can appreciate from afar, but never in quite the same way as Dickinson herself did. Her poetry is certainly more respected and recognized than her gardening.
One thing that separates Dickinson and Frost, however, is Frost’s strong sexually corrupting influence in the poem. He “visits in the Night” like a lover conducting an illicit tryst and carefully leaves before the Sun rises, perhaps catching him in the act, so to speak. In the last stanza, Frost’s physicality – or at least that of his personification – is omnipresent. The flowers “whom his Fingers touched” are irrevocably altered – each is “as it had not been.” “Caresses” is a particularly laden word; it can mean either to touch softly or to agitate –Dickinson’s dictionary even specifically mentions caressing as causing the hair to stand up on the receiver. In this context, the word evokes both the gentle touch and the unsettling reception, giving an overall sense of cloying sexual touch. To seal the deal, the phrase “whatsoever mouth he kissed” explicitly sexualizes the interaction. Additionally, the clear gendering of the Frost through the consistent use of masculine pronouns further strengthens the feeling of a male presence sullying the usually female-coded flowers.
The tone is carefully value neutral; no word in the poem means something explicitly negative. Some words, like “visitor” and “interview” even give the poem a businesslike, casual observer feel, and Dickinson doesn’t say whether the flowers are better or worse off having been altered by Frost’s caresses. Yet the controlling and sexual nature of the language implies negativity where none is stated outright. While Dickinson holds back from negativity in her definitions, she practices no such restraint in her connotations. Never in the poem does Dickinson state that she dislikes the Frost for freezing her flowers – though it is likely that she, like many gardeners, does – but she invites the reader to do so through careful framing.
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 dearth
And her – capacity –
Her face be rounder than the Moon
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 spice
For pang of jealousy –
Her Public – be the Noon
Her Providence – the Sun –
Her Progress – by the Bee – proclaimed –
In sovreign – Swerveless Tune –
The Bravest – 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. Includes 25 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (94a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1890), 85-86.
Jefferson E. Crawford
“There is a flower that Bees prefer,” from fascicle 17, is a poem hinged upon differences within the material world. Dickinson explores the garden with the observing eye of a social critic. The poem reports details of an exchange economy both real and imagined. Beginning in the first stanza, this ecosystem receives valuation of upward mobility. “Butterflies – desire,” and “The Humming Bird – aspire,” the motivations of her garden are as alive within the poem as the creatures themselves. These motivations propel the action of the garden, as well as the eyes of an observer, who notices of the “flower that bees prefer,” a face “rounder than the moon,” a face pale and beautiful, and worthy of any gaze. This flower achieves most clearly through having advantage over others, whether from work or privilege is less clear. She battles with the other plants, grasses “near kinsman to herself,” for “sun and sod,” the necessities of life, and presents herself the best she can “before the world be green,” in hopes of securing these advantages within the economy she occupies. This flower has taken a stand for herself; as the sixth stanza shows, she does not allow herself to become jealous of new garden trends. Keeping herself prepared, and as beautiful as she is, the bees still visit singing their certain song. Underneath the sun, at noon, she still holds a place of her own.
Nature is nearly as trite as it is resolute. A subtext floats along the poem of changing fashions. Creatures like the bees and birds are seduced simply by beauty. Dickinson transposes the flows of the physical world onto human anxieties about the material world. However, there remains a difference. For the garden, trite observations of beauty and steadfast resilience in the face of winter go hand in hand. All actions of the garden, no matter how large or small, should lean toward survival. This leads again to the question, is the flower the bees prefer deserving of her advantages? Has she earned them through active labor within her world, or was it placement, a fortuitous landing of a seed? Taking these characterizations of the garden literally erases another reading of the poem, in which the “Purple Democrat,” likely a purple clover, becomes the hardy staple of the garden economy. A worthy flower for the bee to visit each day, a small flower which retains its simple beauty through to the winter frosts and wakes back up before the rest.
This poem realizes its central figure, the “flower which bees prefer,” is a part of its small ecosystem much in the way certain types of people are situated within society. The “Purple Democrat” does not wish to utilize its advantage for economic conquests; instead, it works most efficiently within the garden simply as a cog of existence. Perhaps even functioning within the garden similarly to how Emily Dickinson herself functioned within her own world.
Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre –
Or Order, or Apparent +Action –
+ Maintain –
The Sun – upon a Morning meets them –
The Wind –
No nearer Neighbor – have they –
But God –
The Acre gives them – Place –
They – Him – Attention of Passer by –
Of Shadow, or of Squirrel, haply –
Or Boy –
What Deed + is Their's unto the General Nature –
They severally – +retard – or further –
+ signal • notice + Do reign +they bear +promote – or hinder
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XII, Fascicle 37. Includes 21 poems, written in ink, ca. 1863, Houghton Library – (56c). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 76, from a transcript of A (a tr132), with the alternative for line 15 adopted.
“Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre –” is the sixth poem in Fascicle 37, circa 1863. Some scholars claim that the poem opposes the conception of nature as evidence of God’s providence, an idea popularized by the Bridgewater Treaties. These treaties state that “geology and mineralogy demonstrate the ‘Power and Goodness of God as manifested in the creation’ and that this power, wisdom, and goodness also show ‘divine design and divine governance’ and ‘a superintending Providence’ in the functioning world.” (Abbot, 199) Dickinson’s four trees stand “Without Design/Or Order.” These trees stand without capitalized godly Order and Design. God serves as the acre’s “Neighbor” rather than its supervisor.
The trees “Do reign” themselves; humans do not govern the acre and neither, seemingly, does God. The trees “Maintain” themselves. No clear direct object follows the verb, rendering “Maintain” most likely a reflexive verb. (Leiter, 79) The trees have no “Apparent signal – notice” nor “Plan.” Dickinson identifies their function as “Unknown,” rendering the trees’ purpose either hidden or non-existent. In the poem that begins “Life, and Death, and Giants –,” which precedes “Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre” in Fascicle 37, the penultimate line reads “Maintain – by Accident.” Dickinson establishes a connection between the capitalized reflexive verb “Maintain” and the idea of accident or chance.
Mary Kuhn asserts that the connection between chance and plant-life forms a non-human centric realm. “Dickinson finds in the plant realm another possibility: life whose very nature is collaborative, decentralized, and communicative with other environmental agents in ways that human actors cannot anticipate or control” (Kuhn, 142). Not one tree, but many, work “severally” to serve their function to give “Him” (referring to either the “Acre” or to God) “Attention of/Passer by –.” The trees’ hidden relationship with each other disprivileges the human-centered model of organized society. The trees have no “Deed.” “Deed” dually signifies purpose and a legal certificate of ownership. The trees exist outside of commercial human dominion; they are not property to be owned. The trees possess themselves; they are “Theirs’” alone. Humans are rendered mere “Passer by” from the vantage point of a “solitary/Acre.” An unthreatening “Boy” (not a colonizing man, but a boy) may “haply” pass into view. Dickinson decentralizes the “solitary/Acre.” She leaves the acre’s origin, location, and plant species undefined. The trees function “haply,” and form the very post-humanist plant realm which Kuhn argues “human actors cannot anticipate or control.”
Complications arise in understanding the poem to fully reject the idea of God’s providence. The poem says that “The Acre gives them -/Place -/They – Him – Attention of/Passer by.” Though the seeming parallelism in the sentence could mean that “Him” refers to “Acre,” “Him” could also refer to God. The trees’ purpose could possibly be to serve the godly “Him.” The capitalized word Acre appears in Dickinson’s Fascicle 36 poem “Dropped Into the Ether Acre.” The “Ether Acre” seems to represent an exalted grave or a portal to heaven or a means to godly immortality. A poem from around 1870 that begins “My god he sees thee,” describes an “Acre/at his [god’s] feet.” The “solitary Acre” of Fascicle 37 lies not at the feet of God, but exists on his same plane, where he is its “Neighbor.” The “solitary Acre” of Fascicle 37 may not be governed by God, but could perhaps be attached to his “Ether” realm, the trees acting out a hidden purpose of God.
The poem contains many contradictions. The trees stand without “Action,” and governance, yet they perform the action of “reign[ing]” themselves. They are without a closer “Neighbor” than God, and yet the “Sun … /meets them –.” Dickinson conceals their purpose and yet the reader learns that the trees give “Attention” of “Passer by” to an undefined “Him.” The trees seem to have no “Plan” and “Maintain” accident, but there exists an (albeit “Unknown”) “Plan.” The Acre exists far from “God” and godly “Design” and yet God serves as “Neighbor.” The poem seems to be in opposition to Providence, and yet Dickinson’s “Acre” that appears in Fascicle 36 and later in an 1870 poem establishes a connection between an Acre and heaven. Mary Kuhn states that “Depicting an active landscape defies the position of writers and thinkers … who sought cultural specificity in the particular biotic qualities of a regional or national geographic range. It also resists the neat rhetoric of cultivation and human control” (151). The poem’s “solitary Acre” can’t be politically specific, because Dickinson never specifies anything particular about the acre other than the number of trees. Though the poem certainly resists the “rhetoric of human … control,” this poem does not fully dispel the notion of divine providence or God’s “Plan.”
Abbott, Collamer M. "Dickinson's FOUR TREES–UPON A SOLITARY–ACRE." The Explicator, vol. 58, no. 4, 30 Mar. 2010, pp. 198-200, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00144940009597043. Accessed 23 Apr. 2018.
Kuhn, Mary. "Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility." ELH, vol. 85, no. 1, Spring 2018, pp. 141-70, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/elh.2018.0005 . Accessed 23 Apr. 2018.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. Google Books ed., Infobase Publishing, 2007.
“Four Trees opon a solitary Acre” originally appears in Fascicle 37 (1863) in proximity to poems such as “Conscious am I in my Chamber” (which speaks of immortality as a “shapeless friend”), “Suspense – is Hostiler than Death,” “The Birds reported from the South” (in which the speaker is “deaf” to the birdsong announcing spring, unable to join in Nature’s celebration), and “Remorse is memory awake” (which expresses deep dissatisfaction with God’s “institution”). Throughout this poem cluster, the tone is quiet and reflective. Themes of faith and religion recur, but always accompanied by an element of disenchantment, alienation, or at least questioning. Placed in this context, “Four Trees opon a solitary Acre” takes on a correspondingly contemplative quality, and seems to evoke recurrent questions of solitude, the place of God, and the meaning of mortal life. Whereas many of Dickinson’s nature poems dwell on cultivated gardens or more domestic outdoor spaces, often referring to the process of gardening, planting, or tilling the soil, “Four Trees” presents a plot of land that is without a gardener but is rather instilled with an autonomy of its own.
At first glance, it may be tempting to read this poem simply as an atheistic image of nature, meant to convey a world that comes into being “Without Design / Or Order, or Apparent / Action,” or without divine intention. The random, or at least less discernible, rhyme scheme and structure support this reading, as rhymes do not seem to follow any predetermined pattern. However, like much of Dickinson’s poetry, “Four Trees” contains more meaning than can be reduced to a single interpretation. In spite of the apparently atheist implications of the poem, it is not wholly godless; rather, God’s casual appearance in the second stanza – not as divine ruler, but as a neighbor – seems to suggest a world of nature without hierarchy or higher motivation, where God is ambiguous in function and valued on the same level as natural phenomena such as the sun or the wind. When read consecutively, the final lines of each stanza seem to build on one another to form the ambiguous question posed by the poem. The progression moves from “reign,” “Maintain,” and “God” in the first and second stanzas, to a “Boy” and finally the void of the “Unknown.” God, while not rejected outright, is decentralized and brought down to an earthly level. The uncertain note on which the poem ends suggests that, rather than positing an answer, “Four Trees” creates meaning by opening up a register of unknowability for consideration.
In her essay “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility,” Mary Kuhn argues that Dickinson’s poems offer a counter discourse to hierarchical human-centric theories of life, writing, “Dickinson finds in the plant realm another possibility: life whose very nature is collaborative, decentralized, and communicative with other environmental agents in ways that human actors cannot anticipate or control” (Kuhn 142). Certainly, in “Four Trees”, Dickinson outlines a natural relationship that resists hierarchy, whether we read it as a spiritual metaphor, a model of “alternative networks of social relations” for humans, or merely a case for non-human sentience (Kuhn 142). In the third stanza, we see an equitable exchange between the trees and the acre, who exist in a kind of symbiosis that allows the trees to assume responsibility for their own existence and cultivation; as we are told, “What Deed they bear is Theirs.”.The trees are the holders of their “Deed,” both in the word’s meaning of “action” and of a contract of ownership. The trees belong to themselves alone; indeed, it is as though the trees garden themselves upon the acre, all according to a plan that is illegible to humans or perhaps even to God himself.
Possibly the trickiest component of “Four Trees” is the deceptively unassuming word “Acre”. Dickinson’s choice to personify and gender the acre as male, as well as to grant it a certain autonomy (“The Acre gives them – Place”), invites analogy between the acre and God. Yet the acre and the trees are equal actors, and the acre seems to serve as a blank, otherwise unutilized canvas for the trees’ auto-cultivation. Furthermore, Dickinson does not use the word “acre” lightly; the Dickinson lexicon offers seven possible definitions for the term, as follows:
acre (-s), n. [OE æcer; cf. Sanskrit ajras, plain, untenanted land.] (webplay: frontiers, larger, open field, property, sowed, sum). Parcel; division; plot; tract; piece of land. Ground; soil. Sprawling extant; vast amount. Dwelling place; space for existence; [fig.] graveyard; cemetery. Specific location; identifiable territory; particular status. Portion; [fig.] vitality; life. Earth; world.
In fact, the word appears in many of her poems, often carrying several of these meanings simultaneously. In “Dropped into the Ether Acre,”t he “Ether Acre” is a grave both earthly and ethereal; In “On my volcano grows the Grass,” the “acre” is a “meditative spot,” a liminal place of tension between destruction and creation. In the word “acre,” and particularly in its usage in “Four Trees,” the meanings of grounded, tangible soil as well as of the greater sphere of existence (spiritual as well as physical) are enfolded. The duality of that which is specific and local (earth), and that which is grand and abstract (world), cohabit in the single term. Thus, the word encompasses both the earthly and the divine. Furthermore, as the definition “space for existence” is present, so is “graveyard” or “cemetery,” which is in a sense the opposite of a space for existence – rather, it is a space of nonbeing, spectrality, and death. The multiplicity of meaning contained within this single signifier makes “Four Trees” a poem of pluralities, rather than singularities. It presents a world where land can be both solitary and inhabited, wild and cultivated, unplanned and anarchic yet coexistent with God.
“Isolation as Prize, Not Punishment”
In “Four Trees opon a Solitary Acre,” Emily Dickinson displays a reverence both for isolation itself and for the natural world that so often encapsulates it. The poem paints the trees as rulers rather than outcasts in their “solitary acre.” From the very first stanza, the trees are potent agents, for they “do reign” even though they are “without design / or order, or apparent / action” (ll. 3-6). Isolation is thus clothed in power, the reign exercised by the trees stemming from inaction rather than action. The second stanza is similarly straightforward, for it alludes to a certain holiness in isolation. “No nearer neighbor — have / they — / But God,” Dickinson writes approvingly of the trees, implying that they accrue spiritual weight by not keeping intermediaries between themselves and God (ll. 10-12). Such an interpretation is buttressed by “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church,” another poem of Dickinson’s, in which she exalts forging a private connection with God apart from the public scaffolding of society, namely, church.
The latter two stanzas of “Four Trees opon a Solitary Acre” laud isolation more subtly. Dickinson writes, “The acre gives them — / Place — / They — Him — Attention of / Passer by,” which anthropomorphizes the “solitary acre” by referring to it with the pronoun “Him” (ll. 13-16). Dickinson’s trees have enough power and agency, as noted above, to give their place the attention of passerby. Alternatively, “Him” may refer to God, in which case the trees give God the attention of a passerby that He would not otherwise command — suggesting that only in a space of seclusion can true spirituality emerge. Not incidentally, Dickinson details that such attention is either “Of shadow, or of Squirrel, / haply — / Or Boy,” which inverts the traditional hierarchical order by first referring to a lifeless phenomenon, then to an example of animal life, and only then to the human life that passes by the trees (ll. 17-19). This conveys a reciprocity and connectivity with nature in isolation, evidenced by both the symbiotic relationship between the trees and their acre, who each give each other something, and Dickinson’s willingness to dethrone human reign over nature.
Likewise, isolation retains an air of amiable mystery, for as the fourth stanza states, “What plan / They severally — promote — or hinder — retard — or / Further — / Unknown” (ll. 22-25). Both the “plan” that the four trees play a role in and whether they aid or obstruct this plan remains undisclosed, but this lack of clarity reveals a triumphant autonomy: “What deed they bear is their’s [sic]” (line 20). More cynically, a “deed” hints at a legal certificate of ownership. While Dickinson undoubtedly came closer to “owning” land than most women of her time did (by living without a male authority after her father’s death), she still referred to the Homestead as “my father’s house,” suggesting that her own sense of ownership was far from secure. The trees both mirror and expand upon what Dickinson valued most in her solitude, tempering the poem’s self-congratulatory notes with a dash of yearning.
Given that this poem was written in 1863, only a few years after Emily Dickinson truly began to isolate herself in her father’s house, it seems reasonable that this poem would extol the virtues of isolation. During Dickinson’s time, the word “tree” had two contradictory symbolic meanings: it could represent the cross that Christ was crucified on, signaling martyrdom and misery, or it could represent heavenly delights. Clearly, this poem uses trees to portray isolation under the latter symbolism, as a choice in life to be appreciated rather than feared.
Dickinson saw isolation as embodied by trees precisely because trees possessed power, which women of her era did not typically have, holiness, which Dickinson struggled personally to define and attain, and reciprocity with the environment and an aura of mystery, two traits that her reclusiveness helped to develop. Even in a gesture of dissatisfaction with her life–giving the trees more legal rights to property than she had–Dickinson ironically retains the luxury of ambiguity. In her seclusion, unlike in public society, she was uniquely free to voice opinions and then to qualify them, to declare and then to contradict. Just as the four trees draw the eyes of passerby to the acre that they inhabit, so too do these four pillars of isolation cast the poem as a shrewd ode to solitude.
Bloom opon the
Mountain – stated -
Blameless of a Name -
a Sunset -
Reproduced – the same -
Seed, had I, my
Should endow the
Not a Tropic of
a Twilight -
Show itself away -
Who for tilling -
to the Mountain
Come, and dis -
Whose be Her
Renown, or fading,
Witness, is not
While I state -the Solemn Petals -
Far as North – and
Far as South
and West - expan -
Culminate – in Rest -
And the Mountain
to the evening
Fit His Countenance -
Indicating, by no Muscle -
The Experience -
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Loose sheets, MS Am 1118.3 (240). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Single Hound (1914), 51-52, from the copy to Susan (B).
From fascicle 37, this poem has two additional variants that appear in copies sent to Susan Dickinson and Louise and Frances Norcross (lost) around the summer of 1863. “Autumn overlooked my knitting” precedes it, addressing the act of artistic creation, representation and aesthetics, and “Publication is the auction” follows, a commentary on Dickinson’s misgivings with regard to publication. The additional eighteen poems of fascicle 37 frequently touch upon death, and feature an almost universal tone of disillusionment. The poem details Dickinson’s struggle with the replication of image through metaphor, and with the fundamental process of meaning-making.
To name is to qualify and possess, and by Dickinson’s logic, nature stands blameless for the imposed statements of the poet. Nowhere is this more present than in the dichotomy between “stated – / Blameless of a Name” (ll. 2-3). Interestingly, blamelessness intimates the potential for blame, suggesting a subjectivity and agency belonging to the natural world. The speaker examines her own capacity, through “stating” and “naming,” to reproduce natural imagery, comparing this to nature’s creative mastery.
Dickinson continues to test her ability to create, reproduce or represent the bloom in the second stanza, musing that if “Seed, had I, my / Purple Sowing / Should endow the / Day” (ll. 7-10). If she were in possession of seeds, it would logically follow that she might, through sowing them, create a bloom. In a way, this planting might be the most direct and “genuine” creation act which Dickinson could perform. However, she decenters herself as potential gardener by shifting the poetic scope to minimize human agency. She refers to the unidentified individuals “Who for tilling – to the Mountain / Come, and dis- / appear” (ll. 14-15). The EDA lexicon includes a figurative definition of ‘till’ as “stir up; delve into.” Those who come to the Mountain to “delve into” or create meaning from it disappear, impotent in their desire to sow and reap meaning. Even the witness to her “renown” (rising, in the lexicon) and “fading,” at the moment that Dickinson observes and attempts to artistically reproduce the Mountain, “is not here.” (ll. 17, 18-19). She transfers subjectivity onto the natural world by delving into non-human phenomena, according to the last we hear of Dickinson’s voice, “While I state” (l. 20). The poem emphasizes the insignificance and ephemerality of the poet, the cultivators of metaphor and meaning who perform their semantic gardening on the Mountain.
Dickinson denies these gardeners “stable ground” for tilling, problematizing the relationship between that which is human and that which is nature by questioning human imposition on the natural world, and proposing the effacement of this influence. Focusing on non-human subjectivity, Dickinson abandons the narrative of the gardener, opting instead for a politics based in free motion and expansion liberated from the anthropocentric association with Manifest Destiny (Kuhn, 143). Rather than an insatiable compulsion to dominate and possess, the expansion of the “Solemn Petals” will “Culminate – in Rest-” (Dickinson, 20, 26). Here the poem aims not only to “trouble the exclusivity of affect to human subjects” as Kuhn states, but to supplant the human (163). By taking the Mountain as subject for the final stanza, Dickinson appears to abandon the human-centric question of statement, reproduction and meaning in favor of a natural subjectivity liberated from concern with meaning.
Even Dickinson’s amendments to the poem visible on the manuscript reveal her attraction to but ultimate decision to move away from a non-anthropocentric emphasis. Subsequently, she adopts a more nuanced approach to the human/nature issue she poses: an approach which ultimately breaks down this dichotomy. In her description of the Mountain in the manuscript from fascicle 37, Dickinson substitutes “Muscle” for “feature,” opting for an anthropomorphizing attribute. She also vacillates between “the” and “His Experience.” Not only does the Mountain take on human traits, but it, too, encounters the issue of communicating meaning. The lines “Indicating, by no Muscle – / The Experience” invites multiple interpretations (ll. 30-31). Either the Mountain indicates an Experience by immobility or lack of expression, the immobility itself communicates meaning, or the Mountain Experiences with a proper subjectivity, but expresses nothing. This last option contains two sub-interpretations, the first being that the Experience is absolutely unsignifiable or at least ineffable, and the other that the Mountain, like Dickinson, lacks the ability to truly communicate or convey meaning.
EDA Lexicon: ‘Till:’ “http://www.edickinson.org/words/2249
Kohler, Michelle. “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 67, no. 1, 2012, pp. 58–86. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ncl.2012.67.1.58.
Kuhn, Mary. "Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility." ELH, vol. 85 no. 1, 2018, 141-170. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/elh.