One sister have I in the house

The Alling Children, 1839, Oliver Tarbell Eddy
Background Image: The Alling Children, 1839, Oliver Tarbell Eddy

Apparently Emily wrote this poem as a gift for Sue on her 28th birthday on December 19, 1858.

This first stanza deals with officials and legal record keeping and explains how though Emily has a sister already living in her own home, she has another, Sue, who lives just one hedge over. Sue and her husband did live right next door, so she’s being literal here. Emily is also referring to the church / town records of whom is born and when and though her own sister is “recorded” as being a Dickinson, Emily also believes that Sue “belongs to me”, as in her own family. Emily is thus creating her own version of an official document, only it’s in poetic form, and thus has even more meaning than the official book of record.

The second stanza deal with birth, and “the road that I came” is quite literally the birth canal that she and her blood sister were born from. They also shared the same clothes in that the “gown” Emily wore one year was then handed down and worn by her sister the next. Then, once again, Emily turns to the poetic to claim Sue as her sister, this time by referring to nature and how a bird will make “her nest” in their family tree. She could also be thinking of how one bird might use a nest they didn’t build to raise their family and thus the two families are connected as having been raised in the same home. Either way, she’s claiming that the bonds of the heart are just as valid as the bonds of shared blood – and since the blood flows through the heart then it all mixes together in one “nest” anyway.

The third paragraph is unusual in that rather than comparing Sue with her own blood family, she is marking Sue’s distinction – she “did not sing as we did”. Emily is referring back to the nest imagery, and here she is implying that Sue is like the hatching of a bird from a different bird’s egg and thus her bird song is from another species – yet notice how although she is aware of the differences, we get the sense that Sue has been fully accepted and will be raised along with the other birds despite her differences. This is a clever stanza and it works because she introduced the nest image in the second stanza as well as made comparisons in the first two and so even though this stanza deals with differences, we’ve already accepted Sue as one of her own as well.

Emily continues to build on the growing of this relationship by traversing years and years of growing up together in the same nest and tells us at the start of stanza four that “Today is far from childhood” implying that now many years have passed since those days in the “nest”. Yet she continues to use the imagery of “childhood” and paints an image of girls holding hands as they play on the hills. And the final line of the fourth stanza has the effect of not only describing how being with a good friend makes time fly (which it has between stanza 3 and 4), but it strengthens the bond between them, both physically with “her hand the tighter” and also metaphorically as the bonds of a close friendship are are strengthened over time.

The fifth stanza takes an unusual turn, however. Emily uses the words “Deceives”, “lie”, and “Mouldered” which a person wouldn’t normally use to describe a friendship. There is a sense of something amiss, as if Emily is all too aware that the case she has made so far in her official poetic record of her relationship with Sue is based on deception and that as close as she is with Sue, there will always be some distance between them – a “hedge away”. In fact, the word “hedge” has multiple meanings in that it’s not just a natural barrier, but in economic terms it is the act of “making transactions on the other side so as to compensate more or less for possible loss on the first” (OED). Emily is perhaps aware that she is hedging her bet on accepting Sue as her sister and is aware of the risk involved in such a transaction. Sue isn’t her real sister after all, rather she is her poetic sister, but the official records only recognize her blood sister.

The fifth stanza does not have to be read negatively, however. There is a quality of playful deceit here as Sue’s “hum” is childlike as it tricks the “Butterfly” into thinking Sue sings the same song as Emily does, and the “Violets” in her “Eye” is a beautiful image of friendship in that the flowers she gives to Sue are reflected in her eye – think of this scene from the point of view of Emily as she holds a bunch of flowers in her hand as she gives them to Sue and in one image we can see the flowers in her hand but are also reflected in Sue’s eyes.

The final stanza is quite remarkable and my favorite of the poem. The image of her splitting “the dew” is an unusual image and there is a possible connection to the sadder imagery of the previous stanza in that the “dew” might refer to tears, though it’s unclear if they are tears of joy or sadness. Emily is, I believe, keeping it intentionally vague because her feelings for Sue are so strong that though she longs for her to be her sister, she is still “a hedge away” which can feel like an insurmountable barrier. Thus splitting the dew could be an image of her wiping the tears from her face as she decides to “take the morn” and makes reference to the rising sun, “this single star”, and describes her decision to accept Sue no matter how much joy or grief may separate them over the years because of all the stars in the “wide night’s number” of stars in the sky, once the sun rises it overpowers them all and becomes the most important source of light and life of them all. Thus Emily is saying that even if they are not related, the same sun warms us all equally no matter if we are sisters or not.