Category Archives: Doré, Gustave

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.

Through lane it lay – thro’ bramble

Dark Wood - from The Inferno, 1861, Gustave Doré
Background Image: Dark Wood – from The Inferno, 1861, Gustave Doré

Perhaps she is referring to Pilgrim’s Progress or to Dante’s journey with Virgil, either way she takes us on a journey by following a straight line from point A to point B through life’s trials and temptations. This is an usual poem in that it has a definite narrative as we are carried along as if she were Virgil and we her charge.

She begins the poem simply with a lane, perhaps alluding to the “straight path” “wandered off” from (1:3) which otherwise is reference to the proper way of living. Yet unlike Dante who is a sinner and no longer lives a virtuous life and thus requires guidance, Emily invents the character of Banditti which is the plural form of the Italian word for bandit. Thus perhaps she is making reference to not just one person, but many people who have “often passed us” along the “lonely road” the way bandits would rob people who were helpless and far from the authorities.

The second stanza ups the tension and gives us the sinister forces of the “curious” “wolf” and “Owl” while a serpent “glid stealthily along”. Interestingly, though the word “glid” was obsolete by Emily’s time – and though she is using it as a contraction for gliding – the 1647 entry in the OED for “glid” means “To look awry, squint” (OED). This slithering coupled with the hunting animals watching and the implied oblique gaze of the serpent is very unsettling and gives the impression of sin and death lurking and watching the way a bandit does for their opportunity to strike.

The third stanza segues into more abstract dangers as the “tempests” blow the “garments” of the travelers while lightning clashes above with her use of the beautifully descriptive “poinards gleamed”. In fact there are elements of synesthesia here in that we not only can see the lighting but we can hear it, too. In fact she is calling on most of the senses in this poem: sight, touch, hearing, and even taste with the”hungry Vulture”. Only smell is left out. And what I think she is getting at is that one must use all of their natural senses to be cautious and alert from every dangers around us less we fall prey to the “Banditti”.

The final stanza stands out from the previous three in that she has moved on from combining the senses into combining the human with the animal. Here the Banditti have become the Satyr, the half beast half man, creatures which it seems Emily is suggesting have been corrupted because rather than being wary of disaster they have fallen victim to it and are now possibly employed by the “serpent” and now act as the tempters to ensnare more travelers from the “road”. The beckoning “fingers” of the “Satyr” is a very ominous and threatening image, with even the implied rape of the victims since Satyrs were known for their erections, and their sexual appetites weren’t limited to humans either. And to complete the synthesis of man and beast and nature the “Valley” itself speaks “Come” as if the “crags” themselves are speaking out from the shadows cast by the “lightning’s poinards”.

The final three lines of the poem are interesting in that whom are the “These”, and “This” she is referring to? The “Satyrs” The pilgrims? It would be easy to say the travelers have successfully navigated the “wood” and can continue on unabated, but it’s possible the Satyrs are the “mates” not just as companions (“Banditti”) but in the sexual sense, too which might further imply sexual violence. The word “road” might also be a clue in that if she is using it not as a noun but figuratively (as in “going down the wrong road” in which the road is the path of ruin) then it’s possible our travelers were captured and killed. Thus these “Children” might be the new bastard race of corrupted “Banditti” and their “fluttering” is not meant to be beautiful, but rather as in no longer having any direction – the “road” has been removed and they are now like the “Valley” which speaks temptation.