All posts by Slowlander

Her breast is fit for pearls

Es una foto del cuadro musas Urania y Galíope, 1634, Simon Vouet
Background Image: Es una foto del cuadro musas Urania y Galíope, 1634, Simon Vouet

Emily sets up a series of contrasts between the “I” and the “Her” (which could be Sue, or the Muses) in which the “Her” is “fit” for something that “I” cannot give. “I” lacks material riches and pedigree but can use the “twigs and twine” available to at least build an emotional relationship with “Her”.

There are some people who argue this poem is about her friend Sue while other people argue this poem is about poetry (the muses), but I don’t think it has to be an neither / or situation because both seem appropriate at the same time. Sue could very well be the must for this poem at least – perhaps many more.

The first line seem straightforward enough on first reading in that it Emily is glorifying the “breast” (the character) or this “Her” as being suited to wear expensive finery. However, the word “fit” is doing extra work here in that not only does she mean that these “pearls” “fit” on “Her” (as in they belong; is suited for) but a “fit” is also an obsolete term to describe a part of a poem or a song (OED) but the word was in use in Emily’s time. Thus Emily could also be saying that her poetry is fit for “pearls” just as Sue is.

The second line stands out because she puts the word “Diver” in quotes. The meaning of this line would not seem to be lost without the word in quotes, but I believe she’s using the word to also do double-duty. At first reading she is referring to the image of pearl divers and that she is unable to diver for pearls to give to “Her”, but a “Diver” also refers to a pickpocket (OED) so Emily could be implying that she isn’t someone who can pluck beautiful words / pearls from their home to “fit” into a poem. I’m not suggesting she alluding to thievery, but the word choice might be referring to how she might think about inspiration and where the right words / pearls come from in that she has to be like a pickpocket to find the perfect ones. In other words, she’s possibly alluding to a deftness and nimbleness to choosing the right words.

The third line is unusual in that Emily does not write that “Her brow is fit for” crowns, she says “thrones” instead. How can a “brow” be “fit” for a thrown when crowns are what sit on brows? I think the answer to this question is that because Emily is a talented poet she does not dive for the obvious word choice. Let’s say she had used the word crown – we would have the image of “Her” wearing a crown, perhaps one trimmed with “pearls” from the first line. Yet when Emily uses “thrones” she expands the image to paint a picture of a royal figure sitting on a thrown who is also wearing a crown. We imagine a queen and all her glory, but if Emily had just used the word “crown” we actually would have not imaged someone so glorious since we would have only been focused on her physical characteristics and not her entire persona as a queen. By being unexpected, she uses a word associated with a crown to enlarge the importance of “Her” and it creates a more detailed image in our imagination.

The fourth line build off the royal persona and majesty of the previous line by suggesting that Emily does not have the pedigree (“crest” as in family crest) to stand before the queen in her court. Not only is she not adept at finding “pearls”, she lacks the lineage to even stand in “Her” presence. And Emily could be referring to her situation as a woman writer in New England in the 19th century as someone who does not have the pedigree of someone like the famous poets of her time or the social standing to allow her to find her own way as a poet.

Yet in the next line, “Her heart is fit for rest” (though in other drafts the word “rest” is switched to “home”) she is saying that regardless of one’s pedigree, “Her” heart is willing to accept anyone to “rest” there. And there might be some subtle wordplay going on in this line too with not only the use of “fit” to refer to a section of poetry, but “for rest” could be read as forest, meaning the wilderness in which Emily lives as a poet outside of the cultivated lands of the poets who have the pedigree to stand before the queen, and it also sets up the image of the following lines in which a “sparrow” builds its “nest” in “Her heart”. In other words, “Her heart” is a part of a poem in which there is a wild place inside of it. And this could tie back to Emily’s feelings towards Sue in that Emily has a wild place in her heart for Sue, but Emily also wants to use the word “home” as a place away from the forest (the wild place) where she can be safe. Thus home and “rest” seem to be at odds with each other in points to a conflict within Emily’s own “heart” about her feeling towards Sue and towards poetry.

Thus the home that is built in the final three lines of the poem incorporates a wildness and the domestic. Emily compares herself to a “sparrow” and in the next line she might be referring to Sue as “sweet” (as in darling, beloved) and not just that Emily’s “nest” is made of “sweet” (pleasing) “twigs and twine”. And the use of the word “twine” seems to allude to the entire poem in that she not only referring to something string-like with which a bird uses to build a “nest”, but also to “a fold; a coil; a convolution; a twist or turn in the course of anything” (OED). The poem does feel coiled, as if it has multiple, interlocking pieces that when unraveled (like the fit of a poem) might seem convoluted, but when put together creates a unified whole; she’s taking something wild and making it domestic and she can do this all year round.

Emily might say that she is not a “Diver” but I believe she is well aware at just how adept she is plucking “pearls” from their oyster. She knows how to build a queen out of a throne and she knows how to “fit” a poem out of “twine” into a “nest”. In fact, this is Emily showing off how good she is.

As Watchers hang upon the East

Colorado Landscape, 1931, Birger Sandzen
Background Image: Colorado Landscape, 1931, Birger Sandzen

While the previous poem, ‘If this is “fading”‘ dealt with the sun setting, this poem is an image of the sun rising. Here she equates waiting for the sun to come up with a “Beggar” – and not just poor economically, but perhaps a spiritual beggar too – with the hope that there is a “Heaven” to come. She replaces the darkness with “the lid of Amethyst” as light satisfies faith.

However, there is a lot of uncertainty about heaven in this poem. The most unusual line is the final line of the first stanza, “Heaven beguiles the tired”. When I first read this I passed over it quickly assuming she meant that “Heaven” is given respite to the tired, but there is an odd paradox in this line in that how can “Heaven” deceive (“beguile”) and why is “Heaven” deceiving the tired? Is she referring to “the tired” as an apostrophe which needs to be driven out of the “Beggar”, or are “the tired” the same people who are the “Watchers” who are up before dawn as they “hang upon the East” (stand waiting for the sun to rise) and heaven is deceiving them? She describes the “Watchers” as being “Beggars” who are “too far for the delight” of the “brooks” which are the oasis in the “Deserts”. Thus while there is the image of people waiting for the relief of dawn, she introduces an uncertainty that “Heaven” will actually appear.

The second stanza seems at first to resolve this issue of waiting as “the East / Opens the lid of Amethyst / And lets the morning go” – which, by the way, is a remarkable image of a sunrise – but she ends the stanza with the question “if true”, as if “Heaven” really can satisfy the needs of the “Beggar”. Emily has no doubt the sun will rise in the astronomical heavens, but even as she looks at this glorious sunrise, she still seems to doubt if there is a spiritual heaven after all. She leaves us wondering if the need each of us (might) have for an afterlife will actually be satisfied and will we beggars be presented with the jewel (“Amethyst”) of heaven to cure our hunger? She has the hunger and desire for faith, but she also has her doubts if “Heaven” is “true”.

Yet there is another way to read the final line of the poem this is not as doubtful. She could be suggesting that “Heaven” exists for us “if true”, meaning if WE are true. A true person (an honest, good person) will be presented with the jewel of “Heaven” if they have enough faith. And this dual meaning could be her way of describing how we are all spiritual beggars full of needs and doubts and how easily we can be beguiled by the possibility that there could be a brook somewhere in our desert but which is too “far off” for us in our own lifetimes. The image of wandering in a desert is right out of Exodus and Moses never did enter the promised land, but he believed it existed and he was able to at least see his “Heaven” because he remained “true”.

This is a very clever poem which can be read as someone who has a tremendous amount of faith or as someone who has doubts which makes this a very human and honest poem because who doesn’t have doubts? Even when we are presented with a feast or a beautiful sunrise, we can still find a way to doubt, and on the other hand even when we are wandering in a desert, we can still be filled with faith that there is a brook to satisfy our thirst. It’s odd how when presented with evidence we doubt and yet we believe more strongly when we lack any evidence at all.

If this is “fading”

Sunset on the Passaic, 1891, George Inness
Background Image: Sunset on the Passaic, 1891, George Inness

Instead of describing a sunset – which is what a lesser poet would do – here she almost seems to become the sunset itself. She also mimics the slowness of the sun setting as it first fades, then dies, then sleeps, and in the final two lines she travels into the world of sleep where she both says good night to her “Fellow men” but also greets the world of “Fellow men” in dreams.

I wonder what the first humans thought was happening the first time they got tired and went to sleep – did they think they were dying? Did the first humans watch the sun setting and think the world was coming to an end? Scientifically speaking, they didn’t since all life on earth would have been accustomed to the setting sun and our evolutionary ancestors were falling asleep long before we left the trees to walk about the savanna. Yet the first humans were also the first living creatures to have (as far as we know) the capacity for poetry and this poem does seem to tap into a sort of ancient and mythic territory where the body journeys into a realm of spirits at nighttime.

The first verb of the poem is “fading” as she watches the light slowly “fade” from the day sky. This is a peaceful image and if you’ve ever really sat and watched a sunset it almost seems as if the process only takes place in hindsight since the actual changes are nearly imperceptible. Thus, for Emily, if life is fade from the body, then let it be like this, let it be gradual, painless, and serene.

The next verb, “dying” is her equating the dying light of the day with the death of the “fading” body. And this image is nothing new in poetry – countless poets good and bad have made the connection with the setting sun and death, but she puts an unusual twist on the image by asking for her “dying” body to be wrapped in “such a shroud of red”. This creates the image of her body somehow being aloft in the reddening sky as the sunset envelopes her. This image is what made me think she was tapping into something very ancient, almost shamanistic where the spirit is carried into the heavens as the “dying” light consumes the body and the two become one. It’s a striking image.

The next verb is of “sleep”. Again, equating sleep and death is nothing new, but here she is mimicking her action of watching the sun go down with her own eyes closing. In effect we are falling asleep with her “On such a night” and she has prepared us for the dreams to come with her image of being buried “in such a shroud of red”.

And she completes the image of sleep with “Good evening” which is actually a cute pun in that she’s saying this “evening” has been “good”, but also the word “evening” does not just mean nighttime, it also means a leveling – to even something out – which completes the image of the body and the sunset becoming one. And it is at this point where we are in the dream because not only does she say the usual “Good evening” to those we wish a pleasant sleep, but this “Good evening” can also be a greeting that she announces to her “gentle Fellow men”. And who are these “men”? Well, the image of the “Peacock” and all its eyes could be the eyes of all the “gentle Fellow men” who are also falling asleep at the same time and as the “Peacock” closes its feathers as the sun sets under the horizon, all the eyes close together and journey into the land of dreams as everyone “presumes to die”. And thus the poem ends when we are fully asleep.

Talk with prudence to a Beggar

The Beggar Maid, 19th century
Background Image: The Beggar Maid, 19th century

As in the previous poem, ‘“Arcturus’ is his other name‘, this is also a poem about empathy, about understanding the situation of another human being but this poem is also asking the reader to be aware of how your own situation, while perhaps more favorable (at the moment, anyway), is not something you should gloat about or lord over somebody with. This is one of those poems politicians would do well to read and take to heart.

It’s hard not to wonder if Emily was thinking about the situation in the American South, particularly slavery when she wrote this. The final line, “Have sometime proved deadly sweet” has an ominous tone to it, as if the person who has to listen about someone’s silver mines in “Potosi” Bolivia, and their collection of “wines” and good food (“viands”) is on the verge of becoming violent and will use violence to improve their own situation.

Another unusual aspect of this poem is that it is not religious, there is no mention of about the riches a person will find in the next life. How many biblical stories are about the meek inheriting the earth, about the glory and riches they will find in heaven as long as they remain obedient in poverty while alive? Emily seems to be challenging this message by saying that you will only make someone more miserable – violent even – if you preach to them about how they should live when they have so little. One wonders if Emily had in mind preachers who were wealthy but taught the virtue of poverty while at the same time taking what little money the poor had before moving on. I don’t know what experience she may have had with such people, but she probably was at least aware that there were scam artists working under the guise of religion.

“Arcturus” is his other name

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, Joseph Wright of Derby
Background Image: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, Joseph Wright of Derby

Gertrude Stein wrote on her 1935 essay Poetry & Grammar that “a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known”. And at the end of Emily’s poem she hopes that God will be like Stein and see past all the nouns and adjectives used to classify her and still allow her into heaven because he loves her.

Before I get into ‘classifying’ this poem I believe I should be self-aware enough to realize that the more we pull apart a poem the more we’re likely to kill it or at least leave it in a state wholly unrecognizable from what its author intended. What Emily is asking in this poem is that we look beyond classifications and judgments and rather see into the heart of a person no matter how “Old fashioned” or “naughty” or “everything” else they are and “lift” them over the threshold and into our hearts. And so it’s with a leaky bucket of irony that I dig into this poem.

The poem can be divided up into two halves. The first half is, I believe, not only examples of things that are harmed when we classify them, but she is also referring to herself with each example.

For example, “Arcturus” comes from the myth of Arcas and his mother Callisto. Callisto had been turned into a bear and when Arcas was out hunting he almost killed her but Zues intervened and also turned Arcas into a bear and placed them both in the sky as stars. Emily empathizes with “Arcturus” because though he was once a great king, he is now just a bright star in the constellation Boötes. The key here is that, like the final stanza, Zeus (God) recognizes that the bear is actually Callisto and so he prevents a tragedy – Zeus sees past the classification of a bear and can peer into the heart inside to know its true essence the same way Emily hopes God will see past her sins and still allow her into heaven.

In the second stanza she is not only describing a scene in which she is corrected by a passing savant (“Savan”) when she misidentifies a centipede as a worm, but she is also identifying with the worm as an allusion to Job 25: 6, “how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!” In other words, humanity can be vile and wicked like a maggot – even the first man (Adam) was little better than a “worm” in that he was born of the earth and dirt. However, her use of Resurgam”, which means “I shall rise again”, speaks to how we shall be transformed from lowly dirt-based creatures into something greater. Thus sinners that we are (like maggots) we can still be allowed into heaven. However, she is also commenting on how the scientist – the “Savan” (savant / genius / smart person) does not see the value of the worm / centipede because they are only interested in classifying the object and is not able or willing to see the spirit of the creature. This is what Stein means when she says in her essay that:

As I say a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. Everybody knows that by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity of emotion about whatever is the object about which he writes.

Emily has the “intensity of emotion” about her subject (the worm) even though she doesn’t know the noun (“centipede”) that some smart person has given it – she sees past the noun and into the spirit.

The third stanza is interesting in that she is very self-aware about her own actions. Emily loves to pick flowers and give them to friends, but she also identifies herself (and her poetry) with flowers. Here she compares her actions to that of being a “monster” which, like being a “worm” or being “naughty” might prevent her from being accepted into heaven. In fact, if admission into heaven were up to other humans, nobody would get in because we’re so busy classifying and judging each other as monsters and sinners – we rarely look into the soul of a person, we only see their noun-quality and their adjectives such as ‘Emily is a wicked monster’. Gertrude Stein would never say this because she looks beyond the noun (Emily – and also monster) and discards the adjective (wicked). She transforms Emily – “Resurgam” – as Callisto and Arcas were transformed because she is like Zeus who can see into a person’s heart / spirit.

The fourth stanza is easy to read as just being about a “Butterfly” because butterflies have transformed just like Arcas and Callisto, but Emily is instead pushing the action of the “Savan” and alludes to how an etymologist pins butterflies to a base so that they can be studied. Emily here is concerned with being judges, with being put on display, but not in a way that people will see into her heart, but are only concerned with surface details, with her biology and physical attributes and is classified as a “centipede” and not in the way Stein would see Emily as an artist. This image also plays on stanza three in which she is only on display and could be a reference to her own poetry in which someone might read her poem and think it’s pretty but without actually taking it to heart. She’s worried that her poetry might just be used as decoration, like a flower in a vase or a butterfly broach on a dress, and not see the meaning of why the flower was given to someone or why the butterfly broach was given as a gift.

Thus the four nouns of the opening stanzas: the bear, the worm, the flower, and the butterfly deal with transformation and also her anxiety over being misidentified and classified as something that she isn’t. She worried that Arcas will not recognize her and will only see the bear and shoot her.

The final four stanzas thus pose the questions to the reader as to what if we do the work as Zeus (and Gertrude Stein) did and look at each other with new eyes. She asks in stanza five what heaven is like now since scientists have classified it as just a “Zenith” – does it still exist? Is Zeus still up there looking down on us? In other words, is there any magic left in heaven now that we think we understand what the heavens are? Or, to put it another way, do we truly see the beauty of a poem after we’ve classified it and pulled it apart and put it on display? Do we have the ability, like Zeus, to truly see into the spirit of another human being or a poem, to look beyond a simple classification and see the beating heart and vital spirit within?

This is the twist inside this poem in that she is asking if we have the power of the Gods to look beyond mere appearances and use our tools of inquiry to find the truth inside the human heart. In other words, can our predisposition to classify everything the way science does, actually lead to truth?

In stanza six she asks us to look at the world in the way a child does when they stand on their head and look at everything upside down. We adults don’t often do this because we are accustomed to not goofing around and sticking our butts in the air – we see it only as a childish “prank” – but a child hasn’t been indoctrinated into the adult language of classifying the universe and thus they are more likely to see past a bear and imagine it as a goddess – Callisto – the way Zeus can.

Emily is also asking us to stop looking at the stars (the “poles”) as if they are just a specific named star such as “Arcturus” and rather slew our understanding in the opposite direction to look at the universe with fresh eyes.

Stanza seven plays with the childlike playfulness and “prank” of stanza six and expresses her anxiety that perhaps the “Children” have all grown up and will “laugh at me” for being so foolish. She’s worried that even the children will not see past her exterior and will judge her only her on some of her “naughty” actions. She’s worried that they will only see her sins and not her virtues which are often buried deep inside the heart. If we recall the image of the flower in the vase then to a passerby they would not know that such a flower had been a gift of friendship between people who care about each other, they only see a pretty flower in a vase, but to the people involved they do understand the significance of that flower – in fact they may even have a special name for that flower, a noun that nobody else knows and is significant to only the parties concerned.

Thus Emily hopes that God too will know the truth of the flower as she flips the “poles” of this poem to mirror the beginning in which Zeus saw the truth and placed his children in heaven. Here she hopes God will do the same and see past her sins and “lift his little girl” into the heavens as well and place her among the stars the way Arcas and Callisto were. Emily literally transforms the poem from a classical allusion to ancient myth to her own desire for God to do the same when it is her time.

My friend attacks my friend!

The Duel After the Masquerade, 1859, Jean-Léon Gérôme
Background Image: The Duel After the Masquerade, 1859, Jean-Léon Gérôme

You can feel Emily’s frustration at getting involved between the argument of two friends, one of which turns on her for interfering, and which ultimately leads to her wanting to just shoot everyone, herself included, to be done with this nonsense. We never learn what the friends are quarreling about, but it must be something petty – which is interesting because it escalates into tragedy.

The difference between tragedy and comedy is that in a comedy the characters are usually unaware that their actions (their shortcomings) are the cause of their failures, while in a tragedy the characters are painfully aware (at least by the end of the story) that their shortcomings are leading to their failure yet they are unwilling to do anything to prevent the tragic outcome.

In this poem Emily sees both the comedic and the tragic qualities of getting involved in an argument between friends. At first she is more than happy to just watch this “Battle picturesque” as one “friend attacks” the other “friend”. The word “picturesque” is worth digging into because it doesn’t just mean a pretty scene that is “pleasing or striking in appearance; scenic” (OED), it can also be used figuratively to describe something “strikingly graphic or vivid, colorful; (ironically) careless of the truth, esp. for effect”, such as a line Jack London writes in Sea Wolf, “For the first time in my life I experienced the desire to murder—‘saw red’, as some of our picturesque writers phrase it” (emphasis mine). Thus the use of this word hints at the possibility that the friends are bickering over something trivial or are having a simple misunderstanding.

However, Emily gets involved by line three, “Then I turn Soldier too”. We don’t know why she has jumped in, but perhaps she has because she thought the issue could be easily solved since it seemed so petty to her as an observer. There isn’t a line break or a dash leading into line three (in fact the poem is devoid of her unusual punctuation), rather she just jumps right in assuming she will find a solution to the issue. Yet in line four one of her friends – and she carefully chooses not to say which one because it could as well be either of them – turns on her and mocks her for getting involved. It might also be worth noting that she uses then pronoun “he”, not ‘she’ or ‘her’ so she might be writing about her frustrations at dealing with pig headed men who refuse to back down from an argument with each other and will turn on anyone who tries to get in the way. Not that women aren’t equally guilty of being stubborn in an argument, but she is equating this poem’s military and war imagery (“attack”, “Battle”, “Soldier”, “martial”, “gun”, “shoot”m and “glory”) with a male pronoun.

The final four lines of the poem are pure frustration with the situation she finds herself in which she expresses nicely with hyperbolic image of a gin so large she could shoot everyone, including herself, and just be done with it all. Thus in the end she combines the comic aspects of the poem with a tragic ending in which everyone dies. And I think this is important because I wonder if we think of the argument between her two friends as a political argument between the situation going on in the United States at the time. Many people in the north, especially in New England, believed they had the moral high ground concerning the issue with the South, but there were many people in the North who benefited from the South’s exploitation of slaves. Arguments over what to do in the lead up to the US Civil War would eventually become brother fighting brother on the battlefield during the war. Thus this poem seems to predict the tragedy and the comedy of the political situation in America at the time, especially the ending which sees the issue resolved with extreme violence.

In fact, if she did perhaps have the political climate in mind when she wrote this, we can feel her exasperation with the situation in that she feels totally powerless to bring about a resolution to an argument she sees as about to turn tragic in a comically awful way. And I’m not saying there is anything funny about the US Civil War or that she was making light of it, I’m using comedy in the darker sense like the way the film Dr. Strangelove looks at the tragedy of impending doom through the lens of a comedy in which everyone involved is an idiot – a dangerous and armed idiot.

In rags mysterious as these

Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis, 1625, Peter Paul Rubens
Background Image: Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis, 1625, Peter Paul Rubens

I wonder if by “these” “rags” she means the words of a poem? Words are only a signifier, not the thing signified, and so they are like “shining Courtiers” asking for the wealthy recipient to pay them attention – in other words, words can only transmit an idea, but it’s up to the person receiving the idea (or the poem) to turn it into action (“alms”).

Emily collected many of her poem in a series of fascicles which were hand sewn and which represented the work she believed should be part of a collection of her best (or perhaps favorite) work. Thus it’s possible “these” “rags” could be referring to her fascicles and that “In” them her poems are the “shining Courtiers” that she hopes will be good enough to be read – perhaps even celebrated one day – by someone of importance (who lives behind “some imposing door”).

So many of Emily’s poem contain words which can be read multiple ways – for example in “Low at my problem bending” – and while she often reveled in this wordplay, I wonder if she was also somewhat skeptical about words and how they sometimes fail to get across what she meant. Some of her poems seem to hint at an insecurity as to the quality of her work, such as in “Ambition cannot find him” and “For every Bird a Nest“. And given her secretive nature she seems to me to be someone who was concerned that while on the one hand she must have known how talented she was, she also might have worried that nobody else would understand what she was trying to say in her art. How many times have each of us said something that the other person took in completely the opposite way in which we meant to the point that it might have caused an argument?

This is the problem with words. A word is like a beggar dressed in “rags” that goes about asking for “alms”. And these beggar words can fill multiple roles as they wander about looking for a home because they are eager for work and can do multiple jobs of they’re allowed to. Take, for example, to word “imposing” in this poem. At first glance it seems as if she is using the word only to refer to the “door” and how it elicits a sense of fear or at least skepticism as to what lay behind it. When a beggar goes to the door of a rich person that beggar will be fearful of the door being slammed in their face. However, the word “imposing” also a term used in the printing process and means “The arrangement of pages of type in a ‘forme’” (OED). Emily has cleverly hidden (in plain sight) an allusion to the act of writing and, more importantly, publishing. Thus she could be saying that the “imposing door” belongs to an editor or publisher and that she is concerned that her “rags” will not be accepted for publication.

In other words, she is not sure her words are good enough. She very much wants her words to connect to the reader, to have an image such as a “golden floor” come to life in the imagination of the reader, but she seems to intuit the fragile relationship between what a word signifies and how it is acts as a signifier – a relationship which the modernists, such as Gertrude Stein, will explore nearly half a century after Emily’s death. After all, a “golden floor” does not necessarily one inlaid with rare metals of enormous value because “golden” can also refer to something being “superficially or misleadingly attractive” (OED) and thus she again hides in plain sight her apprehension and insecurity as to the worth and value of her words. She worries we won’t “get it” – and perhaps nobody really would, at least until the modernists.

Yet there also seems to be an element within the poem in which she is hoping that her beggar words will be treated the way the ancient Greeks treated the stranger as a possible God in disguise. A word might show up at your door and if you turn it away you might incur the wrath of Zeus, but if you let it in then a humble word which seemed to only be so poor as to have only one small meaning, could turn out to be a “golden” and “imposing” deity whose “purple” and “plumes” and “ermine” had been veiled under “rags”.

In other words, this poem celebrates reading into a poem, while also keeping intact the insecurity we feel when we’re not sure what we are saying is being received as intended.

I had some things that I called mine

Time of Harvesting, 1887, Grigoriy Myasoyedov
Background Image: Time of Harvesting, 1887, Grigoriy Myasoyedov

A common reading of this poem is that she is suing God for bringing an early frost to her garden, and this may have been her initial inspiration, however, what is more interesting going on is she is speaking up for the working person who is wronged by their employer but has no recourse for damages, a ruling set forth in Shaw’s Farwell v. Boston & Worcester Railroad decision in 1842.

The Fellow-Servant Rule was a legal term in United States’ labor law that said an employee cannot sue an employer for damages when they are injured by a co-worker: a fellow servant. The law said the victim should go after the co-worker for compensation but they cannot pursue “Action” against their employer. In Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road a worker lost their hand due to the negligence of a coworker but was ultimately unsuccessful in suing the Boston and Worcester Rail Road company because of Lemuel “Shaw” who was the Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice who wrote the decision saying that only the responsible coworker can be blamed and that the company they both worked for was immune to liability. This employer friendly view on workplace injury would last for nearly a century until Workplace Compensation was enacted in every US state in 1949.

So what does this have to do with Emily’s poem?

In the final line of the poem she writes ‘I retain “Shaw”‘ which has two meanings. First she is referencing Lemuel Shaw mentioned above, but she is also making a reference to one of her family’s day laborers, Henry Shaw. Thus “Shaw” refers to both the employer (Lemuel Shaw being the stand-in for en employer since it was his legal decision that gave immunity to employers) and the employee who is at greatest risk from injury but is unable to sue for damages.

Thus the whole poem can be read from two different points of view, the point of view of the laborer who has been injured and wants to sue their employer, or it can be read from the point of view of the employer who does not believe they are responsible for the actions of their employees. For example, the first line of the poem is “I had some things that I called mine” could refer to the poor laborer who only has “some things” (e.g. is poor and has very few things) or it could refer to the employer who has “some things that I called mine”, meaning they are the owners. The second line strengthens this tension between two parties who oppose each other by introducing “God”, however it is left intentionally unclear if “God” is the plaintiff or the defendant in this “rival claim” between parties who, up until recently, had been amicable (“amities”).

In the second stanza Emily describes the workplace as “The property, my garden” in which the work of sowing there has been done “with care”. Again, she does not state who is the true owner here, it could be her “garden” or it could be God’s garden; she is deliberately being ambiguous as to who the employer is here. Granted, it would feel like common sense to say that “God” is the employer, he did force us out of the Garden of Eden to a mortal life of hard labor after all, but that would be selling the poem short because she is making a case for her own authority and for what she believes she has a right to. The poem is far more interesting when we consider she could also be arguing that “God” is her servant and that she wants to sue him for damages. Of course we know this is a futile case, even a little comical, but who has never felt that the universe was being unfair to them and thus wanted some sort of retribution for a wrong done to them, even if it’s a case they know they can’t win?

The second line of the second stanza is worth looking at closer, specifically how the work that has gone on in this garden as been done “with care”. Emily is saying that either the workers have been working carefully and that what happened is the fault of the employer (who is not careful) or she is saying that the employer has made sure that everything that goes on in this “garden” has been done with care and that anyone acting dangerously is thus liable for their own actions.

The final two lines of the second stanza are also ambiguous lines in that the action of claiming “the pretty acre” could be from the point of view of the employer who is claiming ‘Hey, I own the garden’ or from the point of view of the injured employee who is claiming that they have a claim on that property in the form of monetary compensation (such as a lean on a property in which one party claims the property of another). Finally, a “Bailiff” (the law / the police) is sent in to preside over this “rival claim”, but it’s unclear who sent the “Bailiff” because Emily’s use of a dash after “acre” could mean either she has sent the “Bailiff” or “God” has sent the “Bailiff”.

The first two lines of the third stanza talks about the “station” or the social position of the people involved in this case and how because of their “station” they can’t be held responsible under the law. In other words, if she is on the side of the employer then this “station” is referring to how the employer is not responsible for the negligent actions of their employees, however if she is on the side of the employee these lines could be read as their “station” being such that as employees only they are responsible for each other and thus can only sue each other and not the employer. Thus either they are rich and can’t be held accountable, or they are poor and thus the case between employer and employee must be thrown out.

However, the last two lines of the third stanza reveals the motivation behind each party’s claim to a lawsuit by saying that just because one party has “Arms” (weapons) or has a certain “pedigree” (either they are rich, or a poor laborer), “Justice is sublimer” than either of these things and that the court case will proceed, perhaps all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. She is saying everyone is equal under the power of the law, but she’s saying that ironically because of course a person can’t sue “God” and so He can do whatever he wants, just as an employer can do whatever they want or, in terms of the Fellow-Servant Law, poor laborers can do whatever they want too since their employer won’t be held responsible. In other words, the law is not equal for all.

The first two lines of the final stanza could once again be read one of two ways: either she is the employer of the “garden” who will ‘institute an “Action” in court to protect herself from her negligent employees, or she is the employee who is suing their employer for negligent activity.

The final line of the poem completes this wonderful poem’s ability to play both sides of the coin with the use of “Shaw” either being her retaining the services of Lemuel Shaw who will side with the employer, or she is siding with the poor laborer, Henry Shaw, and is thus on the side of the working person.

So why doesn’t she ever take a side in this poem? It would seem that taking the side of the injured worker would be the moral choice, but notice how she has set this legal case up to be the poor worker in the “garden” against “God”. How can a person have the right to sue “God”? It’s absurd, right? Especially when “God” is also the judge and so how can we possibly expect that we could get a fair hearing when “God” is the judge, jury, and executioner? Of course for someone who is one of God’s faithful they will say that God is perfect and would not make an errors in judgment, but our own courts and laws are made up of imperfect people and imperfect laws that must be decided as impartially as possible. Thus I believe she wrote this poem to remain ambiguous as to allow we, the reader, to make up our own mind, to allow us to play “God” for a moment and thus experience how difficult it would be to rule in a case where both parties have an equal claim and neither are actually guilty even though there is an injured party. This is an impossible case to adjudicate, yet a decision must be reached regardless and she leaves us to argue the case on our own.

This is a remarkable poem, especially since it probably stemmed from her just wanting to complain about an early frost in her garden that might have injured her flowers. The poem also expresses her willfulness against authority which we’ve seen in the poems she wrote complaining to her father about being woken up too early, such as in “Where bells no more affright the morn” and “Sleep is supposed to be“.

What Inn is this

Vieja Friendo Huevos, 1618, Diego Velázquez
Background Image: Vieja Friendo Huevos, 1618, Diego Velázquez

In her poem “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently” the traveler voyages across the sea that connects life and the afterlife and during a threatening storm she meets a guide who helps her to the shores of (perhaps) heaven. In this poem, however, whatever happens after death is more like a prison (or a Hotel California) and the guide is a Necromancer who rules over the guests. She paints a much more sinister image than she previously has and this shift speaks to her imagination.

While she does not say in the poem that the “Peculiar Traveler” is in hell, there are a few clues which might lead us to believe that’s what she had in mind. For example, the word “Peculiar” does not necessarily mean odd or strange, it also can refer to someone who is distinguished but, more importantly, it has a New England regional definition meaning “a district or piece of land not (yet) incorporated in or as a town”. Thus we could read “Peculiar Traveler” as a traveler who has journeyed to a peculiar land – land which is not attached to the mortal realm or perhaps heaven. And though “peculiar” in this sense is obsolete, it was current up until 1815 and probably remained in common / spoken usage when Emily was writing.

Another very unusual word is “Necromancer”. Obviously we think of someone who communes with the dead, but a necromancer is also a name for a chafing-dish which is a vessel that keeps food warm until it is served. And how could these things possibly be related? Well perhaps this “Peculiar” place Emily is writing about is sort of a way-station – an “Inn” – where the dead are kept warm enough until they can continue on their way to better accommodations. However, we could get even more morbid and look at the word “Necromancer” in relation to the empty “tankards” and the cold “hearth” as meaning that this particular “Traveler” is about to be feasted upon in this “Inn”. In other words, there is a slight reference to a sort of cannibalism where the “Landlord” will feast upon the dead and this activity will fill the “tankards” and light the “hearth”. There is even a possible allusion to the sacrament of the Eucharist which by eating the body of Christ has sometimes been viewed as consuming someone’s body to prolong life – though in the case of Christianity it is to partake of Christ’s everlasting promise of life after this one.

However, if we reign in that imagery to not be so gruesome, she could also be referring to the body of a corpse. The word “hearth” shares a relationship with ‘heart’ thus the traveler’s heart here has stopped (they are dead) and the “tankards” could refer to the blood of the body. In other words, she could be talking about a morgue where all the bodies are like travelers at an “Inn” but the “Landlord” is the mortician who prepares the body to make it’s final journey to their final home with the rest who are “below”. And since the dead do not need to eat there is no need for “maids” nor for “brimming tankards” nor for “ruddy fires on the hearth”.

Low at my problem bending

El coloso, 1825, Francisco Goya
Background Image: El coloso, 1825, Francisco Goya

Who can’t relate to this poem? Whenever you deal with one problem, something bigger and requiring even more effort to deal with comes along and demands your full attention. In the end we’re left in exhaustion and bewilderment at the problems life is always throwing at us and which we must always be subservient to.

The Oxford English Dictionary is our best friend because looking up even the simplest of words opens up a whole world of possibilities for us to examine Emily’s poetry. For example, she begins the poem with the word “low” which is not unusual in poetry, except that a poet usually uses the word ‘lo’ (as in lo and behold) and means “to direct attention to the presence or approach of something, or to what is about to be said” (OED). Yet here she plays on this standard interjection by not only implying that something is approaching (a bigger problem) but that she has been bent “low” by this problem. Thus not only is she announcing something, she is also expressing how it has power over her. In fact if we consider that she might have been inspired by her father working on some difficult financial matters, he would appear to be bent low over his books with a “busy pencil” as he tries to solve a problem that has “baffled him”.

The next word worth looking up is “serener”. Again, like ‘lo’, this is not an uncommon word to find in a poem, but again she is playing with its multiple possible definitions. For example, while the common meaning is in describing something that is calm and clear, it is also used as an honorific to someone of great importance. Just as with “low” in which the poem begins immediately with the image of someone “bending” under the weight of their problems, “serener” describes this problem as so large, so stately that it overwhelms every other aspect of life the way a king demands loyalty from their subjects. Even the sound of the word “serener” has within in it the sound of the word ‘sir’ which one might use to address someone who outranks you.

And rank is important here because the word “check” in line 5 is doing more work than Emily just looking at her “busy pencil” as it works across the page because “check” is a term used in chess when the king is in danger of capture. And this is an interesting image because she is not just implying that her problems have her in check, but that she is attempting to use her “pencil” to attack her problems and possibly put them in check. In other words, the act of writing the poem is an act of fighting back thus line five could be read as “I check [my problems with] my busy pencil”. Thus she (or her father) work on figures in their books, yet they “file away” the way a soldier in their ranks down when they march off to war (or in defeat after battle). Over and over she is using words which imply military action: “serener” as in the person in charge, “check” as in a military attack and even the checkered pattern on a herald as one would see in medieval warfare, and “file” which describes the formation of the soldiers doing battle against the problem.

Yet in the end her “fingers” are like soldiers fleeing from a battle that has been lost and thus she is in even greater confusion as to how to deal with her problems now than before she began. This is a wonderful image because if we look at this poem as her writing about the process of writing a poem, she is successful in expressing the difficulty of the artist in capturing the thought or thesis they had set out to express and how very often the problem can’t be solved and the poem might be left unsolved. Yet she is able to solve the problem even though the poem ends in total confusion – a trick on Emily can pull off by saying one thing and doing the exact opposite, a talent she uses even in her careful word selection, especially with simple words such as “low” and “check”.

It is also worth mentioning that as this poem appears in her fifth fascicle from the summer of 1859, she might also be expressing the anxiety of a nation that was dealing with a highly uncertain future. The American Civil War would officially begin in fewer than two years, and so she might be combining the image of her father at his books trying to keep his finances in order as war looms, with that of the many people who were writing in the newspapers at the time trying to deal with the looming problem of a possible war on the horizon, with her own issues to create art in troubled times. In each possibility, there is the image of people writing: her father in his books, the journalists and essayists in the papers, and the artist in their journals, and all of them dealing with a looming problem that outweighed all others and would outweigh all others to a degree nobody had yet imagined – except perhaps Emily whose poem express a tremendous anxiety for a future that does not seem to see a solution to these problems.

South Winds jostle them

Girls Picking Flowers in a Summer Landscape, 1893, Gaston Bussiere
Background Image: Girls Picking Flowers in a Summer Landscape, 1893, Gaston Bussiere

Once again Emily is writing about writing. Here she is writing a poem about flowers yet the poem never once mentions flowers, rather she focuses on the life that surrounds a flower such as “Bumblebees”, “Butterflies” and the act of “plucking”. Yet it is within the universe of poem in which this activity occurs and thus the meaning of a thing is defined by it relationship to other things.

Apparently this poem was a favorite of hers to send to other people along with some actual flowers which she had picked herself. Thus the poem and the flowers were a reminder to the recipient of Emily and Emily’s thoughtfulness towards them and helped to strengthen the relationship between them and though Emily was absent, the flowers and the poem were a representation of her, just as the poem represents the flowers which are absent within the poem.

Digging deeper into this poem reveals that Emily as the artist, if she is like the flower, disappears within the poem. She is revealed only though other people’s relationship to her, yet she remains elusive. Her friends, such as Thomas Higginson whom this poem had been sent to, are here represented as the “Bumblebees” and the “Butterflies” who “come” and “pause” at her flower and have traveled a great distance “On their passage Cashmere” to “Drink” from her. And though after “plucking” the flowers does she “Present them here”, she herself is not present. Thus she is both “here” and yet not “here”, and her present stands in place of her actual presence.

On another level she is also describing the problem with representing anything in art. No matter how well the poet describes the flower a poem can never actually be a flower – the flower will always be absent and in its place will be only words. Yet her genius is in not describing the flower at all and rather centers her attention on everything surrounding the flower. This has the effect of her seeming to slip unseen into her own art and puts the emphasis on other people without putting the focus on her, yet she can’t help but also become the true focus here because in her absence we can clearly see her in the poem as the flower we know she is writing about. In other words, for someone who remained hidden away and didn’t seem to want a lot of attention, she was nevertheless at the center of everyone’s attention by hiding herself in plain sight within her poetry. Thus Emily is everywhere and nowhere.

Perhaps she would give this poem as a gift because it was a clever way to get the recipient to think about her without her actually having to come right out and say, “Hey, it’s me, Emily and you should remember me!” And so this is wonderfully clever poem in which though she is giving someone a gift as if to say that she only wants to person a selfless act of gift-giving, winds up actually putting the attention back on her by forcing the recipient to remember her even though there is a “passage Cashmere” distance between them.

“Good night,” because we must!

Flammarion engraving from L'atmosphère - météorologie populaire, 1888, Unkonwn
Background Image: Flammarion engraving from L’atmosphère – météorologie populaire, 1888, Unkonwn

Curious Emily wants to take a peek into what lies beyond death but what’s interesting here is that she doesn’t seem to have any problem believing (at least in this poem) that there is a god (“Father”) and Seraphs, so if she is confident there is an afterlife why does she need to take a look for herself? Is she testing faith? Is she asking God why he feels the need to keep us in the dark about eternity?

Her previous poem, “Our share of night to bear” has a possible allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book V when Raphael visits Adam and Eve after Eve has a disturbing dream where an angel eats the forbidden fruit. God has instructed Raphael to reveal everything to Adam and Eve so that they will not be tricked into sinning, but rather will have the free will to make their own decisions because they’ve been given all the information they need. In other words, God is not withholding vital information from them.

In this poem she continues the theme of knowledge by asking God why he has blocked off the gates of Eden. In Genesis 3: 24 “[God] drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life”. Humanity is barred from seeing beyond their own mortal limitations and thus are deprived of the information we could use to know one way or the other if a paradise truly awaits us after we die. Emily desires to “go” “Incognito” (perhaps a nod towards Dante whom only Virgil and Beatrice recognized in his journey beyond the pale) and see for herself because she believes she has a right to know the truth.

The irony here is that she is committing the failures as Satan in questioning God’s authority and assuming she should have the same knowledge as God. Her use of the word “saucy” is not so much her describing the elusive “Seraph” who guards paradise, but is describing herself as being insolent to her superior: God.

However, her intentions are even more mysterious because of her use of the word “tell”. First she wants the angles to “tell me” and then she asks “Father” to “tell” them to “tell” her. The issue here is if she wants to actually go to paradise and see it with her own eyes, why does she need to be told anything? To “tell” is part of a narrative, and in Emily’s case might refer to her own poetry in that she wants to be inspired, perhaps in the way Milton was to write great poetry that glorifies paradise / nature / her own beliefs. Her playful use of “o” assonance in lines three and four of the first stanza could represent her efforts to “go to know” through her clever use of words, but because there is an infinite chasm between the two stanzas (the blank space) she is unable to cross over and truly represent paradise in her poem because it is blocked to her. The “saucy Seraph” has eluded her and will not “tell” (inspire) her and she represents through the second stanza’s breakdown of the rhyme. Stanza one follows an AABB, however stanza 2 follows CBDB, with B trying to rhyme with her desire to see paradise in the previous stanza, but the final word, “to” uses a slant that feels out of place because she doesn’t have the inspiration to “tell” a poem that portrays paradise.

Our share of night to bear

The Evening Star, 19th century, M.F. Jacomin
Background Image: The Evening Star, 19th century, M.F. Jacomin

The poem is broken up into two main themes: stanza one is about portions, stanza two is about navigation. Each stanza is broken up into two further themes: stanza one being about what we can have & what we put in, stanza two being about what guides us & where we get lost – with the final line being found again. In other words, there is a star or stars (NOT in the sense of astrology but of ocean navigation) guiding our way in life but we can also get lost in the mist (amidst) of life.

I’m not sure Emily’s “thesis” is clear in this poem, but there are some fascinating word choices which might lead us (navigation) into the “mist” of her obscurity. The word that jumps out at me is the word “mist”, which she writes as “a mist” which can also be read as ‘amidst’ as in being among something but also as a state of things falling apart (as in something was amidst). In Milton’s Paradise Lost V: 435, after Eve has had her dream in which she sees an angel eating the fruit from the forbidden tree, God sends Raphael to remind Adam and Eve of what dangers lay in wait for them and that they must be wary of temptation. When Raphael shows up to their home, Milton writes:

So down they sat,
And to their viands fell, nor seemingly
The angel, nor in mist, the common gloss
Of theologians, but with keen dispatch
Of real hunger, and concoctive heat
To transubstantiate.

What Milton is saying is that the angel was not “immaterial” but that he had a corporal body with which he had a “real hunger” thus not only did his body transubstantiate from a mist to a solid, but he could also (at least partially) digest the food (turn food in heat / energy).

OK, so what does this have to do with Emily’s poem? Well my point is that when things began to go amidst in Eden, God sent a star (Raphael) to Adam in Eve to guide and instruct them less they be taken by surprise by Lucifer. God requires that Adam and Eve have free will in all their decisions so he can’t keep them ignorant of Lucifer’s intentions. Raphael also explains that humanity possess the ability to reason, unlike the animals, but that they should always choose to serve God (hence the free will argument in that they should have free will to serve, which is sort of a paradox if you think about it).

Thus what Emily is probably getting at in her poem is that we have to live our own lives and we each have a “share” of darkness (“night”) to “bear” (navigate) as well as clear skies (“morning”) to enjoy. We also have the ability to fill the empty spaces of the world with “bliss” as well as with our “scorning”. In other words, we have a lot of free will to do as we please and we can choose either good (“morning”, and “bliss”) or we can choose evil (“night” and “scorning”). And because we have the capacity to do both, we can transubstantiate our essence into either activity: good or evil.

Emily is talking about how best to navigate life and she is playing the role of Raphael from Milton in that she is describing the multiple ways life can go. She even says that “Some lose their way” which means that it is easy to get lost and confused, especially when we can’t see “a star” but if we stay true then we will eventually find the “Day”. In fact there is an allusion to the north star cleverly hidden in the poem with her use of the word “bear” and then her mention of the word “star” twice. Someone who knows the night sky would recognize this as a reference to Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (Ursa meaning bear), and that if you follow the stars on Ursa Major they point to the north star which is located in Ursa Minor. Thus a sound navigator can always find true north (the true way) to morning (the proper path).

Ambition cannot find him

Der Bienenfreund - The Bee Friend, 1864, Hans Thoma
Background Image: Der Bienenfreund – The Bee Friend, 1864, Hans Thoma

I know she’s writing about how an ordinary person in life is now distinguished in death, but this poem is prescient in that it could apply to herself and her work: in life she was mostly unremarkable but now is considered one of the greatest artists who ever lived. I wonder how much of her own ambition is embedded in this poem? Did she know how good she was? I think she did.

The poem begins with a device she often uses in that she uses apostrophe to turn both “Ambition” and “Affection” things that have their own agency. Here “Ambition” seems to be searching for “him” while ambition’s companion, “Affection” has no idea how “many leagues of nowhere” are between them and this “him”. The question to ask here is why is “Ambition” looking for “him”? “Affection” looking for “him” seems obvious if we consider Emily is contemplating someone whom has died and her “Affection” goes out to them but they have no idea how far “Affection” must go for it to reach them. “Ambition”, on the other hand, implies action; the OED defines this word as “The ardent desire to rise to high position” (OED). Is “Ambition” looking for the vehicle with which it can use to rise to this high position yet is unable to do so and thus both “Ambition” and “he” remain in obscurity and without “affection”?

I think what is going on in this poem is more than just a eulogy for some unknown person who has died. I think what she’s writing about is her own work, her own “Ambition” and her own “Affection”. Consider if “he” might be referring to the poem itself yet “Ambition” – the desire to rise to a high position – cannot find the poem, as if there is a gulf between the words on the page and whatever it is that is required for those words to transcend the ink on the paper into something greater: as in a work of great art. And no matter how much “Affection” Emily has for this poem, they have no idea how “many leagues of nowhere / Lie between” themselves and greatness. In other words, she might be asking what is it that makes a poem great, at what point does “Ambition” find a poem and turn it from something “undistinguished” into something that is “Eminent Today”?

The line break between the two stanzas represents these “leagues of nowhere” in which the transformation takes place, but she is unable to describe the process and is only able to describe the results: what was once “undistinguished” is now “Eminent Today”. How this process took place is unknown, but perhaps the clue is in the fact that by merely writing the poem she has served as a bridge between the states of being “undistinguished” and the one of eminence. Through the act of creating art and by pouring her affection into it, she is able to transform mere words into a “mutual honor” for eternity (“Immortality”).

I think what is buried here in the poem is not a person, but her own insecurity and dilemma with her art. She wants “Ambition” to come to her, but her “Affection” – her heart – has no idea how to cross that gulf which lies between herself and “Ambition”. Yet she wants “Immortality”, she wants her art to live on – which it has – but she is troubled by the process, perhaps because while sometimes she can see the greatness in her work, other times she lacks the confidence – the “Affection” – to believe that what she is doing is in any way distinguished. I think she is worried about being vain, an issue she explored in “For every Bird a Nest“. She seems to be held back by some grip of modesty in that she, on the one hand, knows how talented she is, but on the other does not want to impose or seem vain in the eyes of others. I truly get the sense she is highly conflicted about how she sees herself and because she is so filled with “Affection” for others, she is willing to put aside her own “Ambition” in order to allow other to be glorified, which is what this poem is initially about if we consider she is writing about someone whom she knew who has died.

Where bells no more affright the morn

Sugar River textile mill in Newport New Hampshire, 1880s, Russell Grilmafeson
Background Image: Sugar River textile mill in Newport New Hampshire, 1880s, Russell Grilmafeson

Recalling her earlier poem, “Sleep is supposed to be“, once again Emily is annoyed with having to wake up early and would rather be among the “Children” who “sleep / Thro’ centuries of noon”. But another way tho think of this poem is with the Isaac Watts hymn in mind which recalls Moses’ promised land and how earthly labor will one day be relieved in “Heaven”.

In Emily’s day it was not unusual for factory bells to begin ringing the workers to their shifts beginning at 4:30 in the morning. Previously, and for all of human history up till that point, people’s day were managed by the sun, but with rise of industry, clocks, bells, and managers ruled the day’s schedule. Fewer and fewer people were working the land or were close to nature because now they lived in the cities and so rather than a natural cycle ruling everyone’s lives, the unnatural world of “nimble Gentlemen” was in control.

And so Emily is on the one hand complaining about having to be woken up so early, she also addressing a deeper concern – one shared with someone like Henry David Thoreau – that our lives would be better spent if we did not answer to the master of industry but rather allowed our lives to be ruled by nature.

In the first line of the poem she equates the “bells” of the “Factories” (which is in the second to final line of the poem) with creatures who “affright” the morning, as if they give offense and terrify the woods and the countryside. Rather than the sun alighting the land, the bells frighten the small creatures and sleeping children, an image she comes back to in the final line of the poem.

She continues this railing against industry by describing the work that goes on in these factories as “scrabble”which not only means “a scramble; a confused struggle” (OED) but also is a slight against the paperwork going on in these places as useless scribbling quite inartistic compared to the beauty of poetry. And the image of a “confused struggle” is carried into the third line in which she describes the “very nimble Gentlemen” which not only refers to them being early risers and adept at grabbing the earliest of the morning’s worms, but also being “nimble” enough to navigate the press of “confused” workers who “struggle” out of bed and into the factories. Finally, Emily forces these businessmen to “keep their rooms” and so rather than the workers being practically imprisoned in the factories, she imprisoned the businessmen to remain at leisure in bed in their apartments.

The second stanza describes the sort of town she would rather live, one free of authoritarian bells where a person can sleep all day. She equates this perfect town to “Heaven” where, one assumes, we will no longer have to labor due to Adam and Eve’s sins, but she in not just referring to God the father, but also her own father with the word “Pater” as in pater familias who is the head of household. She is making a cheeky contrast between the father in heaven and her own father who won’t leave her alone.

The final stanza incorporates the Isaac Watts hymn, There Is A Land Of Pure Delight, whose final verse she quotes directly with the first two lines. Here Emily is dreaming – because she’s probably still half asleep as her father rings his bell at her door – of the promised land where labor is no longer the burden that all humankind must endure. What is interesting is that she refers to “Father’s bells” which, though she is describing her actual father’s bell, is embedded in this image of Moses who followed after the father in heaven. This is unusual because she is not just saying she wants to be free of her own father’s insistence she get up and go to work, but is implying that she wants to be free of God’s bells, too. But what I think she is referring to is that since God punished humanity to a mortal life of labor, she is comparing this punishment to her own father’s punishment and thus she wants to be free of all these mortal responsibilities. She also might be referring not just to factory bells, but church bells, too since she might not have been so keen to wake up early on Sundays either.

This is another fun poem and reveals her willful personality and gives us a glimpse of her relationship with her father, if at least in a playful way. But there is a slightly darker overtone here in that if we consider if she was someone who we would today describe as suffering from depression, not wanting to get out of bed is a common symptom of that illness and so we could also be getting a glimpse at her own mental state. I don’t want to diagnosis here – I’m not a medical doctor – and besides young people are not always the most eager to wake up early, but I do think it is worth keeping in mind.

The Bee is not afraid of me

In a Shoreham Garden, late 1820s - early 1830s, Samuel Palmer
Background Image: In a Shoreham Garden, late 1820s – early 1830s, Samuel Palmer

Though nature loves her, the final two lines of the poem seem to imply that something is preventing her from returning the joy. Her “silver mists” are her tears, and they could be read as tears of joy or happiness at being in nature, but there is a longing here, perhaps because it is winter and she longs for summer, but maybe because she does not understand why nature loves her.

“Wherefore” is one of those words that you see a lot in poetry (especially bad poetry) but though I’ve seen this word a million times I decided to look it up in the OED because since Emily doesn’t write bad poetry, then perhaps she is using this word very much on purpose and so I should really know what it means. The main definition of “Wherefore” is “for what purpose or end?” (OED) and thus embedded in the word is a ‘why’ question. In the second to final line of the poem she is asking ‘for what purpose’ do my eyes fill with tears?’ and then repeats the question by asking the “Summer’s Day” directly why her eyes are filled with tears even though nature loves her and comes alive when she is near.

And I get the sense that she is having a difficult time feeling joy even though she knows those around her feel joy at her company. In other words, she seems to be describing a depression in which even though a person knows they are loved, they feel cut off somehow, unable to connect emotionally to the world around them. The final line where she addresses a “Summer’s Day” (in the apostrophe), there is the sense that she is almost begging for an answer. In the previous lines the “Brooks laugh louder” and the “Breezes madder play” and thus there is a rising emotional quality to the scene as if her mind is filled with competing emotions that are almost overwhelming yet she is unable to return the emotions back to the “Brooks” and the “Breezes” and feels isolated even when she is surrounded by love and joy. In fact there is almost a manic feel to this final stanza with “louder” and “madder” as if she is describing her mind’s turmoil – she can’t relax, she can’t just accept the love that is being shown her and so she can only question it which, she knows, is sad. She wants to feel that joy, but somehow she can’t.

Emily is longing for a “Summer’s Day” in her heart and in her mind. Her season is a season of winter that longs for a “Summer’s Day”, but the cold and winter storms prevent her from feeling the warmth that is otherwise so freely given to her. She knows she is loved, but she finds it difficult to actually feel it.

Success is counted sweetest

Moses Viewing the Promised Land, 1846, Frederic Edwin Church
Background Image: Moses Viewing the Promised Land, 1846, Frederic Edwin Church

This poem reminds me of “Oh if remembering were forgetting” in that she’s again speaking of opposites. In that poem to remember is to forget while to forget is to remember. Here to win is to not know victory, at least not in the way the loser knows victory. I do think she’s a bit clearer in this poem than the previous, but regardless, I love that her mind works like this.

Ironically, for a poem which deals with the paradox of only the loser truly knowing what it is to win, this is a rather straightforward poem dealing with the desire and the struggle to succeed at something being inspired by what the participant imagines the “nectar” to taste like. One would think that the victor would know what that “nectar” tastes like since they, you know, are drinking it, but once something has been attained it changes from being the thing you so longed for to being something you now have – your relationship to it is altered and it no longer is motivating you.

It’s also interesting that this is one her her few published poems since she has struggled with wanting to be a respected artist but chooses to work in isolation which she deals with in “For every Bird a Nest“. In this one instance she has tasted that “nectar” but she seems to place much more importance on the desire and the struggle over the actual attainment of success.

Formally there are some clever moments in the poem, such as instead of spelling out the word ‘never’ she uses “ne’er” instead, as if to say those who never succeed can’t even finish the word ‘never’. Of more interest is in the second stanza with how she uses a slant rhyme with “today” and “Victory” to describe success, but in stanza’s one and three she uses a straight rhyme to describe the “defeated”. It’s as if the music that the “defeated” hears in stanza three is altered in stanza “two” and doesn’t sound as sweet. This is a wonderful moment and shows her at the top of her game.

Finally, the first line of the third stanza is worth noting because if you’re not paying attention you might think she’s still talking about the winner. When the line begins with “As he defeated” it’s easy to read that as ‘The winner defeated this other person’, but she’s actually referring to the loser, the “he [whom has been] defeated”. This is another clever trick because it shows how winning has slipped away from the loser – we at first think we are with the winner but then realize we are with the loser as if victory has slipped away from us and we now are “agonized” by the sounds of “The distant strains of triumph”. But because she is playing with whom is being referred to here, by going back to how the rhyme is altered in the second stanza for the winner, we know that those “distant strains of triumph” sound much different to the winner. Emily is able to put is in both points of view at once by subtly playing with the grammar.

Wonderful poem and good on the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Union who chose to publish this poem on April 27, 1864.

Artists wrestled here!

The Human Condition, 1933, René Magritte
Background Image: The Human Condition, 1933, René Magritte

This poem makes me think of Jean Baudrillard’s work on the simulacrum in art, specifically the third stage (of his proposed four stages) in which the sign / work of art suggests there is no there there, no actual reality underpinning the work. In this poem Emily wrestles with creating something that can only lay in “Repose”, like a corpse on the “Easel”.

It’s interesting how many times Emily seems to intuit the modern and post modern movements in her poetry. Many of her poems deal with the process of writing, such as “Have you got a Brook in your little heart” which could be read as her describing the physical process of writing a poem and where inspiration might be coming from. She makes a direct connection between the natural world and art as if they are one in the same in that the words on the page literally become the brook flowing through the poem which itself is the well-spring of inspiration (as well as a metaphor for the ink she writes with) for the poem we are reading.

In this poem, however, she is more skeptical of the process. Instead of inspiration flowing freely, here “Artists wrestled” with the act of creation. And this “here” is quite literal in that she is referring to the paper the poem is written on – which she again refers to as the “Easel” – and she seems to be demanding that the poem make itself known by ending all but one of the lines with an exclamation as if she is trying to coerce the images into a reality beyond the confines of the page / “Easel”. As if the efforts of the best artist, the “Student of the Year” can somehow transcend the limitations of art and create creation through their efforts.

And it’s her use of the word “Easel” which made me think of postmodernism because she is not writing a poem about a “Rose” on a background of “Cashmere”, rather she is writing a poem about a painting that is trying to capture some beautiful element of nature. We are multiple levels removed from nature in that if we consider a real “rose”, and then we consider a painting of a real “rose”, and finally in this poem we consider a poem about a painting about a real “rose”, we’re so far removed from the rose that it no longer resembles a rose anymore, it is just a word containing the letters “r-o-s-e”. We should even consider the fact that the final line of the poem, “Repose” shares a rhyme only with the word “rose” as if it is imitating the rose, a ‘re-rose’, a simulation of a rose, but not the rose itself.

Thus, unlike “Have you got a Brook in your little heart” in which the act of creation begins with nature and then flows into the artist and out through the ink on the page, this process does not go the other way around. The artist cannot inspire nature, they can only be inspired by it. The one benefit to this relationship however is that the artist is able to give a vocabulary to nature who is otherwise indifferent to whomever is observing it and thus allows the rest of us to have the language to appreciate nature. A rose may be beautiful, but a poem about a beautiful rose allows us to actually articulate that beauty, though it is no replacement for the real thing, the poem only lies in “Repose” upon the “Easel”.

So from the mould

Landscape with Green Trees, 1883, Maurice Denis
Background Image: Landscape with Green Trees, 1883, Maurice Denis

Every resource I’ve read on this poem suggests adding in a footnote clarifying that Emily is saying we too shall transform. Yet I think that is unfair to the poem because she does not say that here, even though in most of her other poems she does suggest we will transform to another existence. Taken as it is, without additional knowledge, the poem expresses our “perplexedly” at how nature transforms which I believe is worth considering.

This is one of those poems that a good scientist could have pinned to their laboratory pinboard because it suggests that the mysteries of nature are perplexing but that our “sagacious” eyes continue to “gaze” regardless of how “cunningly” the “Bulb” and the “Worm” are “hidden” as they undergo their transformation. We are curious creatures who yearn for knowledge, but we are like simple “peasants” who struggle to understand the mysterious universe because so much of it is “hidden” from our view and our (current) understanding.

What I find most remarkable about this poem, however, is that it is so joyful, as if the secrets of nature are really just a child’s game where the kids hide “cunningly” and “Leap so Highland gay”. There is an explosion of joy, creativity, and energy in these lines that if there is a transformation for us “peasants” it is in the simple recognition and participation with that joy. Nature explodes with life all around us yet we toil and labor all day without taking part in these wonders. Yet imagine how beautiful life could be if it were possible to put down our peasants’ burdens and “Leap so Highland gay”. Imagine seeing a “Worm” bursting out of the “Cocoon” and leaping into the air! And we can because this image exists in the poem, and thus we are, in a way, transformed because the poem guides our imagination with these playful images and helps us see a world possible not with “sagacious eyes” but with the eyes of our imagination.

In the real world worms do not “Leap” nor are flower “Bulbs” cunning, but in poetry they can be and this is not perplexing, but it is wonderful. If we look to hard at the processes of nature, we miss the life that is constant in nature. There is a great joy here and we should not be perplexed by it, we should participate in it. In that way we would be transformed.

On such a night, or such a night

Bo-Peep, 1878, Winslow Homer
Background Image: Bo-Peep, 1878, Winslow Homer

This poem is related to “Some, too fragile for winter winds” and “Taken from men – this morning” in that she is writing about the death of a child but unlike “Taken from men” in which God might have not noticed this child, here even the parents and siblings don’t notice the child has died. Death comes quietly and softly and the ultimate fate is described as “so small a goal”.

This is going to be a VERY UNUSUAL reading of the poem.

When you look at the poem on the page each stanza appears to grow in width as it moves down the page and it creates an unusual contrast to the “goal” (of death) being so “small”, yet that image is in the widest / largest of all the stanzas. In fact, the final two stanzas deal with the memory of the child who has died and it’s a memory full of childish energy and activity, yet this memory is all that remains of the child, the memory lives on only as words on a page whereas the actual child has reached “so small a goal” as to exist only in memory, in a poem and, perhaps, no where else after death. There is no heaven here, no banners or marshals (as in “Taken from men – this morning“), just the “small” words on a page containing a memory.

The point of view of this poem is obscure in that who is recalling this memory of the child, and especially who is speaking in the first four stanzas? An easy answer would just be it’s Emily imagining all this – which she did since there is no evidence she’s writing about an actual event – yet I believe the first four stanzas can be read from death’s point of view.

The first hint that it’s death speaking is in the first line where she plays with the phrase “such and such” which does not refer to anyone in specific, as if someone is randomly sneaking about at night looking in windows for someone’s life to take. In the second line, “Would anybody care”, death has found a victim and wonders if “anybody” would “care” or, more importantly, notice if death came for this particular victim. The victim is described in the third line as “such a little figure” so we know it’s a child. Thus there is an implied image of death sneaking about at night like a burglar looking for an unsuspecting victim.

Oddly, the child is described as “quiet” in its “chair”. Maybe I am just not familiar with how children during the 19th century slept, but it seems unusual to describe them in a “chair” and not a bed or a crib, or even curled up next to a fireplace or stove. One interpretation could be that she is referring to a “chair” as a verb which would mean the “chair” is “a chair of authority” (OED) and what she’s implying would be that being alive is a person’s place of authority until death comes along and robs us of it. Another could be a play on the word “share”, as in an economic term, and that when we are alive it is out share of life “which is allotted or belongs to an individual” (OED).

However, a more graphic and morbid image but be what she means in that the child, who is described as full of life and energy at the end of the poem, might literally be standing on a chair, perhaps reaching for something it shouldn’t have in the middle of the night (like a cookie jar) but then slipped and was killed in the fall. Of course this would betray the sense of silence in the poem – she uses the words “quiet” three times over lines four and five when describing the action of the child slipping.

Even more morbid is the idea that not only is this part of the poem speaking from death’s point of view, but that death is not some abstract figure who sneaks up in the quiet of the night, but is the child’s parent who has killed the child in the quiet of the night. The image of “Rocked softer – to and fro” implies a hand rocking the cradle but as the rocking slows, the life leaves the body of the victim. Thus we are hearing the thoughts of the murderer as they contemplate (and carry out) committing this act in the middle of the night.

In fairness, this morbid reading seems out of character for anything I’ve read so far of Emily’s poems, however whenever an artist introduces ambiguity into their work then it does leave open the possibility for creative interpretation. And, I have to admit, I like the idea of Emily writing in the style of Edger Allen Poe – I mean, she probably was aware of him, so why not take a stab at it? (bad pun intended).

To push this more morbid reading of the poem, look at her word choice in the final stanza: she uses “nuts”, “charged”, and “goal” which could be a slant with ‘gallows’, as in the hangman’s gallows, though the word “nuts” to describe a crazy person wasn’t used until about 50 years later in the English language according to the OED, so it looks like I’m reaching much too far and shouldn’t get too far down this rabbit hole.

But I think it’s important to be wrong about a work of art and then trace back what it was that led you there. For me, the word “chair” was odd, and the point of view of the speaker is also sort of creepy in that it does seem like someone is contemplating a murder, be it either death himself as he comes for our souls quietly in the middle of the night but without malice, or someone with malice whom death is working through and thus we have the thoughts of someone carrying out a crime.

Emily has often written about death, but it usually comes across as death being like the reaper, a supernatural being or force who acts independently of man but in accordance with nature or under God’s orders. Yet Emily would have known that people are capable of doing terrible things and that infanticide was a real thing and so it’s possible she might be exploring this terrible situation.

In the last stanza she describes “feet so precious charged” which recalls an image of little feet charging about with childish energy as the child plays and enjoys “holidays”. Yet what if this final stanza are the thoughts of the person who carried out the crime and is now being punished? What is “goal” really is a slant for gallows and that “so small a goal” is the image of the condemned (as in “charged” with a crime) looking down at their feet on the trap door and that their whole life only led up to “so small a goal” as to be executed? When we consider how the poem expands as it moves down the page, we get an image of events moving faster, as if the poem is picking up energy that is released at the very end when the condemned, filled with the memory of what they have done, await the door opening and their body falling.

This heart that broke so long

Fullerton vs Fitzfife, Waterloo Cup Final, 19th century, Unknown
Background Image: Fullerton vs Fitzfife, Waterloo Cup Final, 19th century, Unknown

If we didn’t know better we would think Emily spent most of her time going to funerals. And, in a way she did, at least in her mind since this poem isn’t about anyone who actually died, she’s only talking about how life is hard but in the end we’ll find a peace that no “schoolboy” can rob.

While I wouldn’t say this poem is a masterpiece my any stretch of the word, there is a sign of her genius mind at work buried in here. In the second stanza she utilizes the imagery of pray animals, the hare and the bird, who are hunted their entire lives and can only find peace in the next world. Then when we look at line three of the first stanza, she writes about a “faith that watched for star in vain” which alludes to someone who, while they pray everyday, do not find comfort in this life, just like the hare and the bird. What I think her instincts are focusing in on is the idea of the words pray and prey being connected and how “faith” is the only thing at work which keeps someone going in this life because as a prey / pray animal we will always be hunted and terrorized in this life and the star that we have faith in can only be seen after we’ve been hunted down by death. We are – to make a slight pun of it – pray animals and death is who hounds us, yet what death doesn’t know – like the petulant schoolboy – is that in death we are lead “gently” to the “star” (afterlife) . In other words, death is leading us to life, not actually killing us.

We should not mind so small a flower

Rosa Celeste, 19th century, Gustave Doré
Background Image: Rosa Celeste, 19th century, Gustave Doré

My footnote says she is making an allusion to Revelation 4:4 where the 24 elders sit around the throne clothed in white robes and golden crowns, “And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and on the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.” My other notes say that the flower she is referring to is the Blue Gentian which blooms in the late summer / fall, thus after the rest of the garden has been “lost”. She connects these images with the faith of a life to come.

This poem is similar to “To lose – if One can find again” in that she is using the imagery of flowers which bloom at unusual and difficult times – in that poem it’s the Crocus who blooms when there is still snow on the ground – to talk about how nature gives us signs of hope and faith for the days / the life ahead. Yet unlike that poem, this poem revels in its fantastical imagery and creates an almost dreamlike state.

The first line of the poem is worth noting because of the unusual phrase “We should not mind”. At first it seems as if Emily is saying we should not pay attention to “so small a flower”, but since the whole poem is her minding the flower, then she must be up to something else. My guess is that she is talking about the act of tending the flowers and that she is saying we don’t have to mind them because they will take care of themselves: nature will care for itself and all things in the natural world will work themselves out for the best. There is also the connection to Revelation 4:4 which is a dreamlike (nightmare like) sequence in which the central character’s mind is guided by an external force to see what will come to pass. In other words he has set aside his own mind to allow a spirit to “behold” his visions. Thus she is suggesting that we put aside our own mind and our own plans and trust that things will work out according to a plan greater than we can manage or comprehend.

The biblical imagery runs deeper still with the line “Our little garden that we lost” which is a parallel to the Garden of Eden which we have lost. Thus she uses the very first imagery of the bible with the closing images of the bible to talk about endings and beginnings and how we should have “faith” in what will happen to us. In other words, though we have been kicked out of Eden, like the rainbow God sends Noah, the “flower” (the blue Gentian) is a reminder that all is not lost and that if we have faith we will return to the garden like the 24 kings in Revelation 4:4. She combines the imagery of faith and humanity with that of the natural garden which thus forms a complete circle in which all things are connected: we are as much a part of nature as we are spiritual.

The religious imagery continues with the word “Lawn” in that she isn’t just saying that the return of this “flower” will bring life back to the garden, but the word “Lawn” also refers to clothing, specifically linen and the name of the “fabric used for the sleeves of a bishop” (OED). Again, her use of Revelation 4:4 which describes the 24 kings robed in white is compared to the “Bobolinks” and the “Dandelions gold” which closes out the idea that if we keep the “faith” we will clothed in due time in heaven. Though the irony here is that in Eden we were naked, so perhaps there is a suggestion of the clothing not being literal but spiritual.

Formally, she has structured the poem rather purposefully in that the first stanza is quite literal: there is a flower blooming in her garden even though it is fall and the rest of the garden is asleep. The second stanza, however, is comparable to Revelation in that it is a dreamy, drunken image that reminds me of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in that it’s a fantasy image of nature. She is suggesting that when we gaze at the flower we too are provided with a revelation of things to come. And thus in the final stanza she gives us an image of heaven itself that is “clear behold”. Even the rhyme scheme with its slow building of ABCB then reaching up to DEFE and then finally getting to its goal with GHGH implies a hierarchy of images, each building on the last where the flower is a mortal reminder of the promise of life reborn, and in the second stanza we get a glimpse of that new life but only through a revelation while we are still alive, and finally an image of heaven itself in which we have all returned to nature.

page 502 of 768 of Demons

The whole fete scene was really well done, but am I crazy for siding with Stepan Trofimovich’s speech about beauty being the most important thing in the world? I mean, yes, obviously people need food and shelter, I get that, but to not appreciate beauty, not appreciate art, to think only science and engineering is our fate, as if we are only worker bees seems – like the argument people would rather believe.

She bore it till the simple veins

Yuki-onna - Bakemono Zukushi, 18th - 19th century, Unknown
Background Image: Yuki-onna – Bakemono Zukushi, 18th – 19th century, Unknown

The standard reading of this is that she is writing about someone who has died. At the start she is crying (her eyes red with tears) and now this person is in heaven. However, there is another reading in that she is talking about the cycle of life and of memory and forgetting. In the first line she is born (“bore”), life fills her veins (“azure”), but in the end she’s forgotten.

Looking back at the previous poem, “They have not chosen me,” he said” Emily wrote about feelings of abandonment even though she has remained true. This poem expands on that emotion with its unusual ending question, “Of whom we’re whispering here?” Whom indeed are we “whispering” about? We know it’s a “she”, but we don’t know anything more about her and the poem has a ghost-like quality to it.

The first stanza can be read two ways. As I said above the standard way is to read this as an image of Emily crying over the death of someone. In this reading the “veins” on her hand stand out because she has the balled into fists and her “eyes” are “purple” from crying. Yet the word “bore” can mean more than her bearing the news of a friend’s death until she can’t hold it in anymore – in fact, why was she bearing something to begin with? Wouldn’t the news of someone you knowing dying cause you to be upset right away and not bear the news with no emotion?

This question of why she was bearing the emotion led me to think she might be talking about a cycle of life and that “bore” was really being born. Instead of her hands balled up in fists with grief, her “veins” are “traced Azure” as life enters her body (at birth). The first two words of the poem are “She bore” which can be read as she was born and life filled her body. Lines three and four then can be read not just as an image of her grief and crying, but of her maturity. This “pleading” is not just the “pleading” of someone begging someone to come back, but a “pleading” of being noticed, the way a young woman might wear makeup (“Crayons”) to be beautiful and plead that the person she lives will notice her. This ties back the being born not only in the way that she is being born into society as a woman who wants a lover, but there is a slight sexual connection with finding a mate and being born.

The second stanza deals with time passing. Since we were last left with an image of her “pleading” it would seem she was unsuccessful in matters of love and so her life was just a “sum” of “Daffodils” blooming and dying for years and years until she could no longer “bear it” (meaning the weight of life) and perhaps killed herself. The first lines of the poem allude to an unusual image of her giving birth to herself and here she can take her own life when she can no longer “bear it” because the pain of being forgotten by a lover is to great. Again, going back to the previous poem, “They have not chosen me,” he said” she has been dealing with people who are not as passionate towards her as she is to them, so if this is a continuation of that theme then it’s entirely possible she is alluding to suicide in this poem.

And it’s the third stanza which makes me think of ghosts and the Gothic with this almost supernatural image of a woman who is “No more” yet still seems to haunt the “village street” at “twilight”. Though Emily writes that she is no longer there, creates a hole in the environment where she used to be, an emptiness in that “village street” where a young woman once walked but now is only a memory. This is a clever way to write a ghost by describing what isn’t there to imply something that still haunts that place. Yet even if this poem is about someone else whom has died and Emily is describing the places her “patient” and “timid” friend used to be, there is still the sense of a haunting here because this is the memory Emily chooses to recall and is thus haunted by it.

The final stanza suggests she has gone to the afterlife – perhaps heaven, but it’s her use of the word “midst” which, again, is unusual. Whomever has died is not necessarily wearing a crown, rather she stands in their “midst so fair”, she is somehow both part of the scene and yet separate from everyone around her too, like being alone at a lively party – perhaps a gathering when someone you love is there but they don’t notice you, which recalls the first stanza.

And it’s the final line with its question asking “Of whom we’re whispering here” that is most intriguing because it suggests that the person who has died as been forgotten, or at least has gone unnoticed, even in a busy room full of “courtiers” (which could also be read as suitors which enforces the idea of a lover and an unrequited love). Yet in the end we have no idea who this person is and so she is like a ghost. She was born, life “traced” itself into her veins, but time passed and she died, and now nobody remembers her. She is a ghostly figure who passed through life unnoticed by those she loved and now live in an afterlife where she stands in the “midst” / mist but is forgotten there too. In fact, the final line could be the question asked by the object of the woman’s affection at the gathering when they are told someone is interested in them but their reply is “who?” (meaning, I don’t know them and I don’t really care).

I know this is an unusual reading of this poem, but her word choices of “bore” and “midst” and the ghost-like quality of the third stanza, as well as its relation to “They have not chosen me,” he said” seems to add up to much more than a simple story of some unnamed person that the poet describes as her grieving over. I think Emily sees herself as the object of this poem due to her feelings of abandonment in the previous poem.

“They have not chosen me,” he said

Monk By The Sea, 1810, Caspar David Friedrich
Background Image: Monk By The Sea, 1810, Caspar David Friedrich

This poem could also be called “The Prayer of the Fifth-Wheel”. Anyone who has been part of a group of friends consisting of couples while you are single has experienced the frustration of being left behind so that the couples can go off together. Emotions can range from jealousy to anger to depression and can leave a person feeling abandoned. I think Emily is expressing this here.

At the heart of the poem is a desire to be “chosen”, yet like Jesus who had “chosen” his apostles, they abandoned him at the darkest hour. In John 15: 16 Jesus says, ” You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” Emily seems to be saying that what she has is what will last and that if the person she feels abandoned by would just call upon her then all would be well.

It’s interesting that she is comparing the words Jesus spoke with her own feelings, though she admits that she hasn’t “dared” the way Jesus did in calling anyone out for their (supposed) failings. Emily suffers alone and can only share in the solace of her “Sovereign”, but she is able to speak through her poem.

And why is it that she is only speaking through her poetry? The previous poem, “For every Bird a Nest“, deals (perhaps) with her conflicted feelings about aspiring to greatness and fame through her poetry, or remaining humble and “modest” by staying true to the art and working without the temptations of vanity and personal glory. Emily seems to be constantly weighing the pros and cons of her actions and, because she has such a brilliant mind, she can see both sides of the issue and she seems to always err on the side of not making a fuss and remaining “modest”.

Yet a poem like this I believe expresses the desire in her for more, a desire to be seen and included and not allow people to abandon her. And while the results of her turmoil have been the fruits of genius poetry, it’s hard not empathize with her and her longing for something more personnel.

I also wonder if perhaps because she was someone with an intensity of feelings, that she might have been frustrated that others didn’t share the same feelings as her. Emily seems like she could hardly walk past the meekest flower without her heart reaching out to it, and maybe she expected others to feel the same way? Of course most people do not feel this intensely – at least not most of the time – and so she can make a comparison to Jesus who loved everyone intensely but whom wasn’t shown the same intensity of feeling at all times, especially when it mattered the most. Perhaps Emily just loved too much and was unable to understand why regular people are able to manage their emotions better.

I suppose this is the curse of the poet in that they can’t help but feel.

For every Bird a Nest

Wood Lark Nest And Egg - A Natural History of the Nests & Eggs of British Birds, 1855, Francis Orpen Morris
Background Image: Wood Lark Nest And Egg – A Natural History of the Nests & Eggs of British Birds, 1855, Francis Orpen Morris

David Preest suggests this poem may be about Emily’s ambitions as a poet. She often writes about writing and as these poems were often private for her she was free to dream of the pleasures wrapped up in “Ah aristocracy!” Yet the poem has two poles: one where the “Wren” builds it nest perhaps “too high”, and the “modest” “Lark” who builds their nest on the ground. Thus perhaps Emily is trying to reconcile desire with humility.

Formally this poem is rather interesting, especially the rhyme scheme and her use of slant rhymes. The poem follows an AAB CCB structure through every stanza, yet the final 2 stanzas about the “modest” “Lark” who is “not ashamed” to build its nest “upon the ground” relies on slant rhymes to make it work, as if she were the Lark who was satisfied with the utility of the words to build her nest / poem and was not too choosy enough to make the fit perfectly as they do in the first four stanzas where the rhymes are perfect, except for “high” and “aristocracy” which might suggest the “Wren” reaching beyond its means.

The final stanza leaves the reader wondering which bird she is talking about: does she mean to suggest the Wren “Does so rejoice” the most, or is it the “Lark”? The use of the word “Yet” to begin the final stanza seems to imply that she is speaking about the “Wren” – the “yet” sets up a distinction from the Lark’s “modest” behavior and recalls us back to the “Wren”. Yet I think she is talking about both birds and what both birds seem to represent for her. While the “Wren” has airs for “aristocracy”, and the “Lark” is fine living on the ground, Emily ends the poem with an implied question of who does “rejoice” more as if she is unsure which bird she should model her own behavior after. Both have made their home and are comfortable to lay their eggs in their respective nests so they must both be good enough for each bird, but is one actually better?

Thus Emily may be struggling with her own ambitions as a writer in that while she writes modestly in her home and without (hardly ever) publishing, she also dreams of greater fame and recognition. Is it enough to work in secret without seeking vanity through fame, or should an artist share their work with the world and, as a consequence, have praise heaped upon them. Emily certainly knows she is talented enough as a poet – just consider the final stanza’s imagery of the birds (or the poet) “Dancing around the sun” which not only suggests the birds in the sky, but also our time on earth as we dance “around the sun” every year. She is suggesting we only have a brief amount of time, but that we should enjoy it, but there is even embedded in the poem the allusion to Icarus (through the aspirations of the “Wren” in stanza 3) who flew “too high” to the sun.

I wonder how much pain it caused her as she was wrestling with knowing that she was aware of her talents as a poet but not wanting to seem vain or, like the “Wren” aspiring “too close” to the sun.

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.

Some, too fragile for winter winds

O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory, 1892, Jan Toorop
Background Image, O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory, 1892, Jan Toorop

Emily wanted this poem to follow “An altered look about the hills” which dealt with rebirth and the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, yet this poem seems nearly devoid of God and Jesus and here there is no rebirth awaiting us, only the comforts of the grave. Perhaps the only faith she had was in nature?

I’m reminded of the poem she wrote about the little schoolgirl who died, “Taken from men – this morning“. In that poem she describes how far away that little girl is now, a “quaint” courtier in a “kingdom” which we can see as only a “dim” “border star” and the poem seems to be dealing with the grief Emily feels at never being able to see her again. In this poem, I image Emily is visiting the grave of that child and she is contemplating exactly what that “kingdom” really is: is it heaven, or is it only the “thoughtful grave”?

Matthew 10:29-31 says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows”. Emily uses this image of the little sparrow and relates it to the child who was “too fragile for winter winds” but unlike Matthew, she seems to be saying that this creature has gone “unnoticed by the Father” and that Jesus has not been a shepherd to take her into his “fold”. In other words, she is writing from that place of grief where a person wonders if there even is a God and, if there is, has God forgotten their loved one. I wonder if Emily is having a crisis of faith in her grief, is she angry with God, or is she describing her unique philosophy of nature being the one true kingdom from which we come and which we shall return to?

The first stanza contains the remarkable line “The thoughtful grave” which can be read a couple of ways. At first read it seems as if she is saying that it is the grave which cares for us the way a mother cares for a child when she tucks them into a crib. The grave holds the body for all eternity and keeps it safe “from frost”. Yet another way to think of this line is that it is we who are the thoughtful in that as we stand at the grave we must consider the “treasures in her nest” and we must contemplate what will happen when we die.

The second stanza’s use of gender is worth noting because Emily describes the grave as a “she” (who does the tucking in), yet describes the “schoolboy” and the “sportsman” as not “bold” enough go into the grave and “expose” death. It’s unusual that she equates death and the grave with a woman, but it’s a wonderful contrast to the adventurous men who are not so brave as to uncover death’s mysteries. Even the bravest among us are not brave enough to “look” where death is.

The final stanza’s use of the word “covert” is another wonderful example of Emily using one word to do multiple things. “Covert” at first glance implies a secret, as in the secret of the grave, and it also means a shelter, as where a sportsman might go to flush out animals who are hiding, but the 5th OED definition of “covert” means the “feathers that cover the bases of the larger feathers on some particular part of the body”. These hidden feathers which can’t be easily seen (hidden / “covert”) is related to the “thoughtful grave” which protects from the “cold” the way a mother does when she is “tenderly tucking” in her child. These feathers also relates back to the sparrow which she is using as the central metaphor, but also in how she equates spirituality with nature and not necessarily a Christian God.

As I read through each of Emily’s poems everyday I learn something new about her, and this poem took me by surprise when I read the line “Sparrows, unnoticed by the Father” because it felt to me as if she was saying that God does not notice everyone and that all that is waiting for us is the “treasures” of the grave. And this stood out for me because it’s such a human poem, a poem filled with doubt and mystery, but also the desire to be comforted and a philosophy about life and death that is not morbid, but quite beautiful in that we are all part of a natural world, and death is a part of that world and though death is scary to think about (as we stand at someone else’s grave being”thoughtful”), there is a treasure there, not just in the fact that whom is buried there is a treasure to us, but that death is a treasure just as life is, it’s just that it’s a mystery that nobody alive is “bold” enough to truly investigate, to truly spend the time being “thoughtful” about because it is a terrifying prospect and one we will all face when death is ready for us too.

An altered look about the hills

Jesus and Nicodemus, 1899, Henry Ossawa Tanner
Background Image: Jesus and Nicodemus, 1899, Henry Ossawa Tanner

The story of Nicodemus is about rebirth and being reborn and Emily describes in detail how beautiful the world is when seen anew and at springtime. Yet there is also an interesting aspect to this conversation at work in this poem that is buried in the subtext and it deals with her use of the word “furtive” as well as “Chanticleer” (as from Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale).

The first line of the poem can be read quite literally that there is “an altered look about the hills” in that the “hills” look different, but because she is alluding to the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, this can also be read that one should look at the “hills” in a new way – in other words, there is an element at work here of one being instructed to something in a new way. Perhaps because it’s her use of “look about” which not only means there is something “about” the “hills” that is “altered”, but also one should “look about” the “altered hills”. Finally, this line also works really well as a title since what she’s giving us is “an altered look about the hills”.

The second line mentions the city of “Tyre” a prosperous city (that God will one day destroy), but here Emily is alluding to how one can profit by being reborn. I suppose you could say she making a subtle economic pun, but her use of the word “light” also creates an image of a golden city shining with golden morning sunlight (the next line deals with a “sunrise” after all) and so light – as in the golden “light” of God – is mixed with the profit of gold. Thus one can become rich by being born again.

Lines three and four not only convey the passage of time, but also move the image from the scale of a city – Tyre – to the more personal of one’s “lawn” in their yard when families gather in the warm evening to gather and play.

Lines five and six deal with the vibrant colors of spring and rebirth, yet she personifies this image with the use of “foot” and “finger”. Perhaps she is alluding to the feminine quality of nature as personified by mother nature, or perhaps she is implying the image of a person walking through a field of “vermilion” and then plucking a “purple” flower with their “finger”. Either way, the image of flowers as “purple” fingers is quite beautiful, but also playful since there is embedded in this image the idea of being beckoned towards this beauty the way Jesus gently beckons Nicodemus towards his teachings.

Lines seven and eight are related in that the “fly” and the “spider” are always related, but the “fly” is described as “flippant” which could be related to her later use of “furtive” in that Nicodemus is asking a question he should know the answer to. In John 3:4, Nicodemus asks Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” but he would know that Jesus wasn’t being literal so either he’s asking because he’s wondering if this Jesus fellow is a bit daft, or he making Jesus clarify exactly what a spiritual rebirth is. The “spider” and “fly” association is important here because though there is a somewhat sinister aspect to that relationship, it could also be read as the “spider” keeping the “flippant” “fly” from getting too far away. It could be read as Jesus being the “spider” and Nicodemus being the “flippant fly”.

Of most interest to me in this poem, however, is her use of the word “Chanticleer”. In Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale, she tells the story of Chanticleer who had a dream about a fox but was told by his wife not to worry about it, then later encounters the fox who tries to eat him, but is able to escape by playing on the fox’s pride. Chanticleer is literally in the jaws of death – as the “flippant fly” is when trapped in spider’s web – but is born again when he uses his intelligence to save himself. This is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus to do in order to be saved and enter the kingdom of heaven.

But if we continue with Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale, he describes the fox in that poem as “A col-fox, ful of sly iniquitee” (inequity). Emily in her poem uses the word “furtive” to describe a “look you know so well”. What is this “look”? Is it death? The first line of the poem speaks about an “altered look”, so is this “furtive look” related to the way we used to look at the world before we were saved? Embedded in the poem are some subtle reminders of death, such as the “spider” weaving its web for the “fly”, the “axe” swings not only for the tree but also for “Chanticleer’s” neck, and Tyre which will one day be razed by God’s wrath, so perhaps she offering a warning about the person who does not alter their way of looking at the world before it is too late?

The poem ends with her describing how salvation can be seen in nature each spring: “its annual reply” to the question of will winter ever end, but she combined the images of nature with that of the spiritual realm and of being reborn to be saved. A lesser poet would have left it just at that, a simple poem about nature’s rebirth, yet here she mixes in passages from the Bible, a possible allusion to Chaucer, and the unusual concept of accepting the kingdom of heaven thought the appreciation of nature which will one day be destroyed by God.

Soul, Wilt thou toss again?

Semper Augustus, 17th century, Unknown
Background Image: Semper Augustus, 17th century, Unknown

What I find interesting here is that she is addressing her soul as if it is a separate entity with which she is struggling with. I imagine she was investigating why her soul sometimes does the right thing but then sometimes allows the “caucus” of “Imps” to have their way and lead her astray. She’s asking why can’t we be good all the time and why is it so hard to resist evil.

As is often the case with her poems, the key is usually in the first line, especially with a single word. In this case she uses the word “Wilt” to pull double-duty. At first glance “Wilt” is a contraction of ‘will it’, as in ‘will it [my soul] toss again’, but “Wilt” is also what happens to a flower as it withers. Imagine our souls as a single flower in a vase that if not well tended eventually starts to droop away from the sun. Emily compares her soul (and herself) to flowers in many poems, so it seems reasonable she is playing on this theme.

The next word that stands out is “toss”, and here we can think of it in a couple of ways. If we recall the poem “We lose – because we win” she talks about gamblers tossing their “dice” but coming up short. I compared this to the Roman soldier casting lots for Jesus’ garments, which is to say that though eternal salvation was right there on the cross before them, they chose instead to play a game of chance. In other words, the soldiers made a poor choice and that leads to another reading of the word “toss” to mean that she is exploring why her “Soul” isn’t always constant and tends to “Wilt” like an untended flower.

The second stanza reminds me of the old cartoon trope where an angel sits on one shoulder and a devil sits on the other as they try to convince the protagonist what the best course of action is. Here she compares this to politics in which the “Angels” and “Imps” are having an election for her “Soul”. And the adjectives she chooses to use are worth noting because the “Angles” in this poem are “breathless” as if they are silent and silently hoping she will do the right thing but the “Imps” are more active because they are “eager” as they “Raffle”. There is a sense that evil is far more industrious than good and that it is always working against the “Soul” like how nature works against the lone flower in a vase as it slumps towards the ground. The angels here “[linger]”, but the “Imps” are gathered in a “caucus” which recalls the noisy and messy process of electing a politician.

So something is on Emily’s mind and she seems to feel like she is caught in the middle of either making a good decision or making a poor one. Perhaps this is why she was in a bad mood in her previous poem, “Heart not so heavy as mine“?

Heart not so heavy as mine

Late October, 1882, John Atkinson Grimshaw
Background Image: Late October, 1882, John Atkinson Grimshaw

Hearing someone whistling as they pass under her window she is soothed by their joy and she hopes they will pass by again tomorrow night to once again lift her “heavy” heart. Of course the passerby would have no idea that their little happy ballad was bringing someone joy – such are the unintended consequences of our actions making others happy.

Emily does not explain why her “Heart” is “so heavy”, we only get the experience of her describing how the stranger has lightened her day. This is worth noting because she is not dwelling on herself or her problems, she is instead open to others and to the possibility that she will be made happy. Emily is not dwelling on sadness here, she wants joy and she finds it in even the smallest of moments that would otherwise pass by without anyone noticing, like the “minutes” on a clock. This theme of valuing even the smallest beauty is something she loves to explore, such as in “By Chivalries as tiny“.

The first stanza is quite beautiful because she does not describe two people, rather she describes two hearts. She does not refer to the whistler as a he or a she, but rather “itself”, as if the hart was like Gogol’s Nose walking about free of any constraints. By not grounding the poem in literal imagery but instead by implying that hearts and spirits are freely “Wending” their way about town, the image is dreamy and purely emotional. Even her use of the word “Wending” contributes to this dreaminess because instead of using the word ‘winding’, the sound of the word ‘when’ can be hear, rather than ‘whine’, and so there is a longing quality to her happiness that she gives this heart as it passes by her “window”.

The second stanza recreates the whistling she is able to catch in short bursts as it passes by and the stanza resolves itself with the softness of the word “anodyne” which juxtaposes to the earlier harshness of the word “snatch” and the staccato quality of “Ditty of the street”. The first two lines recreate who she feels – her heart is heavy and she is “irritated” – and so at first everything she hears irritates her “ear”, but by the end of the stanza she has been soothed and the gentleness of the word “anodyne” has the soothing sonic quality of the pleasant whistling she hears outside.

She connects this beautiful and joyful sound into the song of the “Bobolink” who, along with the passerby, is “Sauntering”. Yet the Bobolink’s song is quite hectic and she describes it as “bubbled”, as if it were a fast moving “brook” of sound travelling past her and so we have some competing images that at first don’t seem to fit together. First she connects the “anodyne so sweet” to that of the bubbling “Bobolink”. This image connects her troubled heart with the joyful sound of the whistler. Emily is still in a mad mood, but she is being cured as the poem goes on.

Yet she isn’t immediately cured of her heavy heart the moment she hears the whistling, rather the poem describes the process of her being cured and so joyful sounds are combined with the hectic yet joyful sound of the “Bobolink”. She next connects the song of the bird with that of a brook that “bubbled” as if her troubles (her “bleeding feet”) were being soothed and the pain carried away downstream. In each instance she uses a line break to connect these images as if she were taking a moment to listen to the whistler and allow the sound to slowly work on her. Thus the magic is working in the blank spaces of the poem where time passes. She enforces this image of time passing not only with the image of a “brook”, but the use of the word “minutes” which not only is a measurement of time, but also can just mean “something small” (OED). Thus her troubles are made less burdensome as she listens to the passerby pass by her window and the sound of the whistling enters her window then slowly fades away into the night.

Once again she uses the line break to convey the passage of time and by the last stanza the “Wending” “heart” has passed and she is left to “pray” that it will pass by again “Tomorrow”. Just as quickly as the sound entered her window it is gone again, and we are once again in her silent room hoping along with her that the traveler will return: which they do when we reread the poem.

Pigmy seraphs — gone astray

Vierwaldstätter See, 1852, Alexandre Calame
Background Image: Vierwaldstätter See, 1852, Alexandre Calame

Emily would rather be clothed with the fashion of nature than put on the best that Paris, Venice, or the “Duke of Exeter” has to offer. For her the natural world is enough and to attract a “Bumblebee” is honorable enough work as opposed to putting on airs. She even goes as far as to say that such fashion is “an ambuscade”: a trap that just wastes your time, money, and well being.

Emily begins the poem with the verb “astray” which informs us of her philosophy towards this subject of worldly fashion vs nature. At first this seems a little confusing because it implies that she is saying the “seraphs” (the little / “Pigmy” flowers) have gone astray and are somehow in error, but this isn’t what she means. She’s setting up a complicated image of fallen angels who clothe themselves against their natural nakedness with worldly fashion against the image of these “Pigmy seraphs” who are angels on earth that live as flowers under the roof and shelter of heaven.

She reinforces this duality by going on to describe select societies in the first stanza, the “Velvet people from Vevay” (Switzerland on Lake Geneva which is still a very, very nice neighborhood), “Belles” as in belles of the ball but also another way to describe a flower), and the “Bees” who are part of a “Coterie” or an exclusive society which not only describes actual bees, but can also stand in for people who work and labor. Thus she uses each image to pull double duty: one that represents the good and natural world and one that represents the worldly and mortal world of unnatural fashion.

The first four lines of the second stanza describe the fashion industry of “Paris” and (I assume) some fine makeup products on one’s “cheek” from “Venice”. Yet she says these are false things and are “an ambuscade” and if we recall the image of the “seraphs” who have “gone astray” she recalls the image of the fallen angel (Satan) who, because of the sin of pride, is trapped in his own evil thinking into believing he is worthy enough to be heaven’s heir, not Jesus. Thus she is alluding to all this false fashion as being akin to the sin which caused Satan and his crew to be kicked out of heaven.

In the final stanza she describes what she would “rather wear” as opposed to that of what the rich and royal own. For her, attracting the honest “Bumblebee” wearing only a “briar and leaf” is plenty enough for her than “an Earl” or the “Duke of Exeter” attracting all his little attendants and servants and serfs the way Satan attracted one-third of the host of heaven (according to Milton, anyway).

Yet it is her combining of images to both describe the natural and the worldly that implies that within each of us there is a duality pulling at our souls: we can either live naturally and be like “Pigmy seraphs” who have “gone astray” in that we are like the angles who live like “Roaylty enough” here on earth, or we can really go “astray” and be like the worst of the fallen angels and cover our bodies with false pretenses and false authority in order to reign in hell.