Whose are the little beds – I asked

Coucher de soleil sur la neige à Lavacourt, 1881, Claude Monet
Background Image: Coucher de soleil sur la neige à Lavacourt, 1881, Claude Monet

This is a wonderful and charming poem where she walks about the “little beds” where the flowers will eventually grow in spring, but for the time are all tucked in into their winter beds and they all call out to her like children as she walks among them at bedtime. But she is also personifying herself as a natural maternal figure who is responsible for nature’s blooming.

My footnote claims Emily may have been inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, The Rhodora:

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.

The lines “Then beauty is its own excuse for Being” and “the same-self power” are of specific relation to Emily’s poem in that we have a narrator who has come to the “little beds” to make sure everything is coming along OK during winter the way a mother would check on her children on a late and cold winter’s evening. Yet these are just wildflowers that are hidden away in some far away valley, so why is it important that anyone should care about these flowers?

Emily’s point is the same as Emerson’s in that “beauty is its own excuse for Being”, and not just “being” in the sense of living or just “being” somewhere, but with a capitol “B” which implies something far more spiritual, even cosmic. Emily uses the word “reverent” which is not only a show of deepest respect, but also implies that she is their “reverend” as in an authority of the church – the two words are closely related in that their early use in English meant that “they were not clearly distinguished ” (OED). Thus the flowers not only turn from their act of showing respect to their mother, but they literally turn their heads away from their reverend back towards their metaphorical pillows. In fact, Emily’s relationship to all of these flowers could be seen as her being like reverend, but more like mother nature. Emily is no mere wanderer who happens upon the “little beds”, she is responsible for them year round and her responsibilities not only include them, but even the “Bumble bees” who will arrive “When April woods are red”.

The most charming aspect of this poem, however is how she personifies the flowers as small children. In the first stanza she as “Whose are the little beds”, but, as children who are having a little fun would do they don’t answer her, but she can see them responding to her as they shake “their heads” while “others smiled”. I can clearly see the children tucked into bed with only their heads visible as they smile and nod. It’s an adorable image.

The second stanza continues this scene, but this time mother / Emily is more insistent in the way a parent is who requires an answer from her children but is also being playful . I almost imagine her being responsible for a sleepover and she is taking a roll-call to make sure nobody has been forgotten.

This leads into the third and fourth stanzas where we get a description of all the flowers / children’s names, many of which are used as a child’s name such as “Daisy”, “Iris”, and “Aster”. I especially like “chubby Daffodil” and though I’m not sure why, I get the feeling this one is Emily’s favorite – maybe it’s because it’s the only one that gets a highly descriptive adjective.

The fifth stanza reinforces the image of a gardener / mother / reverend tending to her flock of flowers / the sleeping children and her presence and actions has a soothing effect on all everyone. Since this poem would take place during winter before the flowers have bloomed, perhaps Emily thought to write this while being reminded of a particularly bad winter storm. Perhaps she imagined watching over a group of children who awoke when the storm was at its worse and it was her job to make sure everyone was reassured everything would be OK and that they were able to go back to sleep. “Epigea” may even have been particularly worried about the storm, as was the “Crocus” so Emily rocks them gently back to dreamland, the place Rhodora has gone where she’s “dreaming of the woods”.

The final stanza connects morning with the spring by saying that the “Bumble bee” will “wake them” when the sun is up and the storms have passed. What is interesting it that it’s not Emily however who will wake them, but rather the “bee”. Where does Emily go at the end of the poem? Is she watching over other children who need her soothing touch and “quaintest lullaby”? Perhaps she is saying that nature will look out for them and that all things will be as they should come morning and that everyone will be alright and their lives will go on as normal when the sun comes out and there is no more need to be afraid of the storm and the dark.