Category Archives: Monet, Claude

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.

New feet within my garden go

Morning on the Seine in the Rain, 1898, Claude Monet
Background Image: Morning on the Seine in the Rain, 1898, Claude Monet

Being ‘wrong’ about a poem has its own rewards and I always keep my notes to remind me of my initial inspiration. For example, at first I thought she might be talking about Eve in the garden, but then “new fingers” made me think of newborns and childbirth and I wondered if she was writing about pregnancy, but I was confused my the bird “upon the Elm”. But it was a cemetery all along.

The first three lines deal with the living going about their business such as walking through the “garden” as they “stir the sod” while the “Troubadour” chirps happily – perhaps hoping for a mate to answer the call – in the “Elm”. Yet the final line reveals that the peace has been broken – she refers to this as a betrayal of “the solitude”. The word “Betrays” gives a strong emotional quality to the poem’s speaker in that we get the sense they are annoyed by all these “new feet” and stirring “fingers”. And formally, this last line resting below the living first three matches the visuals of someone who is laying in their grave (and is annoyed with the living).

The first two lines of the second stanza continue this tension between living and dead as she alternates between “Children” (living youth) with “Weary” (old death), and again with where the “Children” “play upon” as opposed to the dead who “sleep below”. Finally the closing lines of the poem deal with the passage of time and the speaker’s weariness continues with the line “pensive Spring” as if springtime in this particular garden was a gloomy affair when the life above is restless as it walks and stirs and sings – better for it to be winter when the “punctual snow” returns right on time to cover the earth in “solitude”. Her use of the word “still” in both lines reveals not only the speaker who is “weary” of, once more, Spring’s return, but also in how the ‘stillness’ returns when the snows come. In fact, this final line reminds me of Joyce’s “The Dead” when he writes:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

One thing I want to note is that my initial inspiration about this perhaps being a poem about a pregnancy is that in the final two lines a period of about nine months does pass between the start of “pensive Spring” and the return of “punctual snow”. This passage of time coupled with “new feet” and “new children” as well as her use of “punctual” reminds me of the cycle of life not only of the earth but also within each of us. One day we walk in the sunshine as the birds sing in the “Elm” while the next we lay underground and become the energy source which will fuel next year’s growth in the garden. The whole earth is pregnant in this poem, and even in death there is still life that grows from what came before.

I think it’s her use of the word “garden” that could be read slightly cynically as if the speaker is annoyed that their body is now the source of nutrient that the “new fingers stir”, but it could also be read as something rather beautiful in that it recognizes this cycle and our place within it and how even in death there is a memory of all that came before and that the dead want to be remembered.

She slept beneath a tree

The Poppy Field, 1873, Claude Monet
Background Image: The Poppy Field, 1873, Claude Monet

My first reading of this poem was very literal. I imagined Emily watching over an infant sleeping in it’s crib which was outside under the shade of a tree. As she approached the crib and saw the child sleeping she gently placed her foot on the crib to rock it, but upon recognizing that she was being rocked, woke up and, flushed with crimson (“Carmine”) and began to cry.

However, while that is one way to read it, as I researched this poem I learned that Emily might actually be talking about a flower whose location only she knows. When Emily goes out to the tree under which this flower grows, the flowers hears her footsteps (“She recognized the foot”) and pops out of the ground in full crimson (“Carmine”) bloom. Emily this exclaims “And see”! (exclamation point mine for emphasis) as one would out of pure delight to discover something so wonderful happening right before them.

Yet she could also be writing about remembering a pleasant memory which brings her joy, or perhaps drawing a pleasant reaction out of a friend who has been sad or ill, and when the friend hears Emily’s footsteps it brings them both pleasure.

In each case, however, Emily is the one making the first movements. The flower / child / memory “slept” but as Emily comes along “mute” she awakens what was previously dormant and a joy is brought into the world, “And see”. One could then read this as her poetry silently coming up to us and awakening inside us a pure joy at discovering something so beautiful and thus we both share in the act: she creates the art silently and the joy is born inside the reader, “And see”.