After being shown the highest point revealing the secrets of the world, she still hesitates to agree to put her faith in “He”. Perhaps having to be shown something rather than discovering it herself is what she is taking issue with, or perhaps her imagination is so rich she doesn’t trust it to reveal the real truth? Either way, her “face withdrew” and could she “further “No”‘ (know).
The most interesting word in this poem, for me, is the word “No” because she seems to be equating “No” with ‘know’, as if she is saying “No” to a sort of knowledge and knowing. Everything that has been revealed to her in the poem has come from it being shown to her by someone else and she seems to be saying that this sort of knowing is something she must withdraw from and say “No” to. In a way she is flipping the roles of Adam and Even by suggesting (slightly) that if she had been Eve she would not have eaten the fruit, she would have said “No” to the fruit of the three of the knowledge (knowing) of good and evil.
I’ve read that perhaps she is referring to Christ in this poem, and perhaps she did have Christ in mind, but she has written so many poems about the world being revealed to her – often the Platonic world of the Forms – that I feel she is questioning where this light which shines on the worlds revealed to her comes from. In this poem she describes a “light for me” which glows “solemn” and which she withdraws from, as if she is now skeptical of what she has discovered in her imagination. Perhaps she is speaking about doubt which, as any artist can attest to, is a powerful force always at work in the artist’s mind as to their own ability. Or perhaps she is skeptical of the church revealing how the universe works because she has seen with her own imagination the true beauty of the world and thus she is skeptical of the “solemn” light of the church (think a dimly lit chapel and its votive).
Very unusual poem about hearing the news of someone dying (perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning) but nevertheless still sharing an “Immortal” bond with that “stranger” even though their “Presence” has gone. And it’s the final line of the poem, “Absconded – suddenly -” which leaves us wondering about the nature of the soul after death – is it hidden? is it immortal?
A few words jump out at me as perhaps being key to this poem: “feel” in the first stanza, “paralyze” in the second, and “Presence” in the third. Perhaps Emily is attempting to describe the process of how death works to transform someone with whom we’ve had a “Kinsmanship” with to that of someone who is now “vital only to Our Thought”. But is she is speaking about the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning then this is an unusual transition because Emily did not know her personally other than through her writings.
Thus maybe Emily is also describing her relationship with other writers as being “Vital”, as if they are friends connected through language and writing and through which Emily does not see any difference between a relationship with someone she physically has been in contact with and someone whom she has only known intellectually. Emily’s penchant for letter writing in lieu of her engaging with society would seem to support her view of living a life of letters and it might be why she capitalizes the word “Vital” at the start of the poem to describe her relationship with the person before they have died and then does not capitalize the word “vital” when they have passed on. That “Vital” relationship has been transformed “In dying” from “Vital” to merely the “vital” “Presence” of our thoughts because she can no longer engage anew with this “stranger”.
This could also suggest Emily sees the act of creating art and writing as a living process – that art is a life force of its own and thus when the artist died it is as if their soul as “suddenly” “Absconded”.
I love the image she creates of a serene agitation building up like a “Pearl” in the secret place of her life that “He” can’t get to. She maintains her independence while also submitting to the mechanism of a relationship but she maintains that she does not belong to anyone. Wonderful wordplay of “she rose” as in she’s a rose and he’s a requirement.
As typical for Emily, it is ambiguous who the “He” is. On first reading it’s easy to assume she’s speaking as a new wife, however she could also be speaking as someone who understands that in order to grow up they will have to follow someone else’s rules – even the wealthiest businessperson is still beholden to their shareholders. What she is exploring here, however, is the dual nature of this act of free will, free will as being the freedom to choose to submit to an authority, as what Milton was writing about in Paradise Lost. And while she describes this as being “honorable Work”, she describes the act as like an oyster that will “Develope Pearl” because something has agitated a tender, and private spot but instead of growing angry it grows something beautiful – though from the oyster’s point of view, a pearl might be just so much excrement.
The most difficult part of the poem is the second to last line, “But only to Himself – be known”. As I was reading this I first assumed she would say that “He” wouldn’t know “The Fathoms they abide”, in that “He” wouldn’t know her secret “Pearl”, but the way this reads seems to be that only “He” knows this pearl exists, that even she is unaware of what is growing in her. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the soul in that through the process of living, of growing up, of engaging on the free will to submit to authority, our “Pearl” soul grows out of the agitation of living until God is ready to dive into the dark “Fathoms” of the universe and extract the gift we’ve been growing without even knowing.
This is an unusual poem for Emily because she is using imagery to, perhaps, describe her emotional state, thus this poem feels very modern in that the outside world becomes a representation of the interior world of the individual.
Most striking is her juxtaposition between the ephemeral quality of the reflection in her wall with the very solid, very permanent finger of the church steeple in the distance. She might be expressing her own feelings about how fleeting life is yet watching over everyone is this consistent spirit, be it God or Nature or the Forms, that one can always look to and find in the same place. In fact this image made me think of Marcel in Proust when he describes all the church steeple’s as these landmarks which he used to orient himself in the world and which he could always count on to be watching over him, as if they were the guideposts of not just a traveler, but the guideposts of morality.
The first stanza seems to present us with an image of possible decay. The “ample Crack” could be a defect in the wall of her room, as if where she is living is falling apart, that the space she inhabits is reverting back to the earth. Thus her room and her body seem to interchangeable. There is also the imagery of her being separated from the world behind her “Curtain and the Wall” as well as the shadow on her wall of the distinct line of the landscape reflected on her wall in which there would be a sharp distinction between the sun and the line of this shadow.
The second stanza is a marvel of genius in how she effortlessly describes the watery, shimmering quality of the “Bough of Apple” reflected on her wall. We can see not only the outline of the branch but also the halo of light around this shadow as the bright sun behind the “Bough” reflects around it and seems to make the image dance like a “Venetian” canal. And this “Venetian” image also speaks to the possibility of her own dreams she might have been having before she awoke in stanza one and that the walls of her room are like the walls of the mind in which our dreams are projected onto the surface of.
The central stanza has the effect of allowing us to see along with her as she lies in bed watching the shadows move across the walls. This is a very slow stanza in which time slows to a crawl as if the “Occasional” movement of the “Vane’s Forefinger” were like the slow movement of the hands on a clock. Thus she lies there as the weather slowly changes, as the day slowly creeps along the walls of her room. And again I’m reminded of Proust when Marcel remembers the image of Golo from his magic lantern that projected onto the walls of his childhood bedroom.
The fourth stanza has an element of the eternal in it in that “The Seasons – shift”, that is time goes by like a continuously flowing river (or canal) but that what she finds in reality does not equal the treasures of her mind. There are no “Emeralds” nor are the there “Diamonds”, she only dreamed of these riches and reality is just the slow, cold, river of time flowing along across our bedroom walls. This image could very well be describing her possible depression where she is describing her disillusionment with reality, with her desire to capture something beautiful but always somehow coming up short. Emily feels so strongly that even the shadows impress her, but she knows these images are not real and so she feels powerless to deal with reality. So while she is enchanted by the beautiful imagery dancing on her walls, she is also trapped in a room slowly falling apart that she seems unable to leave, that she seems to be trapped in for an eternity.
And the final stanza outright uses the work “caskets” to describe what has come to fetch her when she has died. Here she is mixing the imagery of dreams with that of the afterlife, in fact there really doesn’t seem to be a difference, and one wonders if she might be saying she was dreaming of death as she lay there in her room, depressed. Central to this final image is the “finger” of the church’s steeple, as if God himself is pointing at her accusingly, or his pointing her towards heaven, or is implacably and inscrutably still by not saying anything or offering any assistance. The image is like the hand of a sundial which the shadows dance around but itself is mute, is just an impediment to the light of the sun. Is she suggesting the church is merely that which creates shadows? Is she suggesting the church is central to the guiding of our journey along the “Venetian” canal of life? It’s all mysterious and beautiful.
I’m reminded of Dante’s love for Beatrice whom, though she married another man, he loved her his entire life, even long after she died. Only in poetry is he able to be with her in heaven when she takes over for Virgil and guides him through Paradise (Divine Comedy) as well as when they were both only 9 years old and met her (in real life) and Love spoke to him (La Vita Nuova).
Emily would have been familiar with Dante, and though I don’t know if she ever read La Vita Nuova (The New Life), there does seem to be a parallel to the revelation Dante felt when he first saw Beatrice and the spirit of life spoke to him saying “Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me” with Emily’s experience of catching a glimpse of “that New Marriage”. Unlike Dante, however, Emily’s revelation seems to be directed not at an individual, but rather to “Love” itself, as if she had fallen in love with “Love”. And, like Dante who would only ever to be with Beatrice in poetry (and in death), Emily recognizes that her and Love are “Bound to opposing Lands”, at least for the time being, and that she won’t find Love’s embrace until she too is “Deposed – at length – [in] the Grave”.
Emily seems to have worked on the poem quite a lot; there are multiple copies of it, each with unique revisions, such as the word “Resurrections” being switched to from “Revelations” as well version C of the poem which she uses her signature dash more frequently than in version D. The more fragmented form of version C does have the affect of being almost breathless, as if Emily is trying to capture the revelation she feels at being in love with “Love” and, at least for a moment, was aware of her soul’s place in the infinity of the universe, as if she glimpsed an infinite love and she desperately tries to recreate that sensation in her poem.
Emily describes in the first stanza how on the longest day of the year – the summer “Solstice” – she experiences an event she thought was reserved only for the holiest of people: “the Saints”. Up till this point she had considered herself to be quite ordinary and that the love shown to “Saints” was not the same love she would ever experience, as if God had degrees of love depending on who you were. Dante also refers to the position on the sun when he writes “nine times already since my birth had the heaven of light returned to the selfsame point almost” as if that particular day was the most important day of the year – in fact of his life – and that the importance of that day would be like a “Solstice” that is never ending in which the sun remains forever at its peak. In other words, the events of this day would be momentous and would forever cast its light on both their lives until the day they die. Perhaps this is why Emily suggested using the word “Revelations” rather than “Resurrections” since what was revealed to her in the light of the longest day would shape her from that day on, yet she is also resurrected in that she is reborn on this day and that she will leave her old life behind.
The second stanza is interesting in that she describes how everything else was quite regular and ordinary. But just as the sleeper whose dreams are full of thunderstorms and marvels, to the observer nothing out of the ordinary seems to be taking place, there is no thunderstorm outside of the sleeper’s dream. Thus “The Sun” goes round as normal, and “The Flowers” sway in the breeze just as they always have, and her “Soul” remains in her body just like normal – in other words, she hasn’t died, but she has experienced something only she (and her “Soul”) is aware of.
And what it is that Emily experiences is described in the third stanza as being “The Wardrobe – of Our Lord” which she means as “Love” itself. This could be read a few ways, most obvious being that perhaps she has discovered Christ and Christ’s love for her and all humanity and that for a moment she shares in this divinely inspired beauty as she walks among the flowers as the sun travels overhead in the second stanza. But she is experiencing something more than a religious, Christian epiphany, she is experiencing “Love” itself, a love that cares for everything from the “Flowers” in the breeze, to “the Saints” and everything in between. She’s experiencing the Platonic form of “Love”. This is why, perhaps, she describes “speech” and the “word” as being profane because if a Platonic Form could be described with language then it wouldn’t actually be the true Form because a “word” is just a “symbol”, it is not the true thing itself. All Emily can say is that she feels it, she knows it is surrounding her the way the light from the summer sun shines on all living things and makes the grow and gives them life. Thus “Love” has been revealed to her and she is, for a moment, like “the Saints” who are resurrected into heaven and like Dante who, upon seeing Beatrice for the first time, though they were both only 9 years old, he experienced an event that would shine on him his entire life.
And though “speech” does not profane this moment (just as Dante does not speak to Beatrice on their first meeting), she is still able to “commune” with this love for a “time”, yet she is also aware that this moment will pass just as Christ’s disciples knew during the last supper that the end was near. This image recalls the “solstice” as once the sun reaches its zenith it will begin its long climb back towards the horizon and will not spend so long in the sky warming the world below until next year. The poem even becomes somewhat frantic as she divides up the fifth stanza with 8 dashes (the most in any stanza), as if she is clinging to what has been revealed to her but it is slipping away so quickly – “The hours slid fast” – that she’s trying to capture and hold onto whatever snatches she can in her poem but “Love” is sailing past her in the other direction. Emily often uses a boat metaphor to describe the voyage of life, such as in “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently“, yet unlike that poem which the pilot guides her to the next life, she is heading in the other direction which is the voyage of our mortal lives.
In the sixth stanza the moment has passed and “time had failed”; the sun has moved onto the horizon and the revelation that was revealed to her is no longer something she can experience first-hand. And since there were no words to describe the experience, the moment has passed by silently – in fact even the exact moment was so brief that it would be impossible to measure the exact moment it occurred since the sun never stops its journey thought the sky, it only travels through the zenith on its never ending journey, there is no exact ‘there’ there, just as there is no way to point to a Platonic Form as say “there it is!” However, the sensation remains inside her, the way the memory of Christ on the cross is depicted on the crucifix when Christ was both mortal and divine, when he was both dead and alive. One could not point to the exact moment when a person passes from one existence to the next, we only know that it does happen, just like the sun passes through its zenith.
When Emily does know, however, is that she too will make the same journey as Christ, she too will pass her zenith and “time” will fail her and she will be able to experience that pure form of Love for eternity in the next life, just as Dante believed he would when Beatrice guided him through Paradise. Yet all she can do for now is try to put her revelation down into a poem and as best she can use language to describe the indescribable, to capture a moment in time that no clock could ever measure because it does not exist in any one point in time, but rather exists outside of time, in a place where “time” fails: eternity and eternal “Love”.
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.
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.
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.
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“?
The imagery of the poem is quite beautiful with how she moves from the “Daffodil” to the “yellow bonnet” and carries that into the yellow of the “bees” contrasted to the green of the “Clover” and even hints at the drunken color with “sherry” (cherry colored). But it’s her use of the implied mythology behind the “Daffodil” as being related to Narcissus and her exploration of borrowing a “flower” that I find the most interesting.
The poem begins with her assuming someone wants to “buy a flower” from her. Her use of “Perhaps” is not a definite statement, so we have the image of the narrator making an assumption as to the intentions of whom they are addressing. The second line plays coy with whomever is being addressed by saying she “could never sell”, yet it’s possible she hasn’t even been asked yet, rather is only assuming this transaction is what is wanted from her. What I’m getting at here is that if you think about a time you feel you’ve looked quite good and you want someone (or everyone) to notice you – perhaps you bought some new clothes or got a great new haircut and you want to show off – but you don’t want someone to actually take you up on the offer, you just want to be noticed and then have everyone move on with their day.
This all has to do with appearances, and this is why I think the image of the “Daffodil” is important to the poem in its relationship to the myth of Narcissus. Narcissus loved having people want him, but he did not want to actually be had, he just wanted the ego boost of people telling him how beautiful he was. Later he drowned when he feel in love with his reflection because he was basically drunk with his own self-love. This poem is operating along similar lines in that it is a facsimile of the real thing, in this case spring time. A “flower” will bloom in the spring when the “Daffodil / Unties her Bonnet” and when “the Bees” get drunk (“Hock” is wine) on pollen, but the narrator in this poem already has a flower before spring has come – it is, like the reflection Narcissus fell in love with, not the real thing, it’s a facsimile, a reflection of spring that someone can “borrow” in winter, but you better not fall in love with it because it’s an empty object just like the reflection in a pond.
The poem ends with her saying she will gladly lend this “flower” but come spring when the real flowers appear, she must have it back at the very “hour” before their arrival. She does not say what will happen if she does not get it back, but Narcissus wound up killing himself over his reflection, so it’s implied something terrible will happen is she does not get her flower back.
Another way to think of this poem is that she is saying her own poem is not a substitute for actual spring, it’s only words on a page and that the real beauty is in going out to the garden and watching the bees drunkenly buzz about the daffodils. Yet the riddle here is that without poetry, how would we be able to put words to the beauty we see? It is poetry which gives meaning to the flowers and the bees and springtime and without it our lives would not be as rich. Thus the reflection we see in the pool is important because it allows us to understand the beauty of reality, but we must be careful to not go too far otherwise we will miss the importance of reality and only value the reflection.
This continues yesterday’s poem “Within my reach!” as a possible allusion to Hades’ rape of Persephone. This is all from Hades’ point of view or at least from the point of view of the sinner who has stolen or defiled something that was beautiful just to have it for themselves (“I shall never tell”). It has a childish feeling of selfishness / deviousness to the motivation.
The first stanza puts us in the point of view of whomever is spying and their conflicted feelings about the act they are to commit: she’s “pretty” and he (I’m assuming gender here) is “ashamed”. There is also a slight sexual allusion being made with “hidden in her leaflets” to mean perhaps her sexual organs. This idea of the beauty but also the shame of sexuality is not uncommon (even to this day, especially in America).
The second stanza seems to have almost a dual point of view as it could be the rapist who is “breathless” as they try to sneak up on her, but it could also be she who is “breathless” because she suspects she is being watched as her body is exposed (her “hidden” “leaflets” are visible). But then she is captured (rape is also a raptus in that in the medieval sense, such as with Chaucer and Malory, it also means abduction, not necessarily a forced sexual assault) and the use of “haunts” again gives strength to the argument this could be read as Hades dragging her down to the underworld and the idea that sexuality and sin are mixed images and the possibility that sexuality, especially elicit sexuality, leads to damnation. But it could also be the idea of a blossoming sexuality (or she’s just getting horny and writing a poem about that) and the duality of the “struggling” to not give in to that temptation is commingled with her “blushing” in that it’s possibly very enjoyable.
The final stanza has two very interesting words. “Dingle” is a deep, dark forest where she is hidden, but there is a sexuality to this word too in that the forest could be the pubic hair and the dingle could be the fun way of referring to the clitoris, the way someone who is sexually inexperienced might refer to their sexual organs (previous described as “leaflets”). There is also the meaning of “Dingle” as a ringing bell and this combines the sexual energy of this word with that of a church bell ringing out and reminding her of her sin. In the first two lines of this stanza there are the sins “robbed” and “betrayed” and the final two lines deal with confession (“ask me” and “I shall never tell”).
“Dell” is another interesting word in that this is also a forest but the obsolete usage of the word in the OED also means “a young girl (of the vagrant class), wench” which was last used by William Harrison Ainsworth in 1834 in his novel Rookwood so the word was still being used around Emily’s time, at least in literature. This idea of a wench, a girl whose morality is in question could refer to the girl in this poems’ conflicted sexuality.
All in all these two poems are a wonderful exploration of sexuality, myth, repression, and elicit excitement.
I wonder if she is writing about Demeter? Looking ahead to tomorrow’s poem “So bashful when I spied her!” I thought perhaps she is writing about Hades and thus today’s poem deals with the rape of Persephone. The goddess was picking “Violets” (and Narcissus) when she was abducted and so I feel like Emily is combining Demeter’s search and Persephone’s abduction in one image.
The first three lines could be from Demeter’s point of view as she searches for her daughter “could have”, “might have chanced”. Even if it’s not, there is a longing here, a lost opportunity that seems to have gotten away.
The next three lines have a very unusual ‘s’ alliteration that could allude to Persephone as she and her friends pick flowers – the image of softness and a floating gentleness dominates these lines. However, even without the Greek allusion, there is a gentleness to this section that is calming and pretty and delicate broken only by the tension of “unsuspected” which hints at the possibility of something coming to shatter this calm.
The final three lines (especially the last two) commingles the image of the delicate fingers picking the flowers with the greedier hands of Hades as he abducts Persephone “striving fingers”. These lines could also be recalling the first three where again an opportunity is lost, but the image is unusual in that it feels as if the “Violets” have bloomed only an hour after the “striving fingers” have come through – as if something beautiful has gone unnoticed. This could be how Dickinson might feel about a lover who has just missed her acquaintance (she blooms but nobody sees her) and her desire is mixed in with Persephone who was greatly desired and carried off. Not that I’m suggesting Dickinson wanted a violent encounter, but the classical myth of the gods desiring each other is a powerful image.
This is an unusual poem in that she will begin a stanza with a rather beautiful image but then complete the stanza with an unexpected sadness.
The first stanza’s first three lines paint a scene of what life will be like during winter when the ice skaters are on the frozen ponds. This is typically a jolly image of winter fun, yet she ends the stanza with the image of cheeks being “tarnished” by snow. “Tarnished” is an odd word choice since it means to discolor and even to dishonor. Perhaps she is preparing us for the image of her weeping in the final stanza and thus the cheek that is “tarnished” is her own when, in the deep of winter, she is unhappy because of whatever joy she had in summer is now gone.
The second stanza takes us further back in time – in fact the first three stanzas each move back in time and so the beginning of the poem winds backward like a person who is remembering something. In this stanza she connects the idea of a Christmas present with a gift she received before Christmas which she describes as a “wonder upon wonder”. However, we never learn what this “wonder upon wonder” is, we only know that in winter she seems to only have a memory of it, so perhaps this “wonder upon wonder” is not a physical present, but perhaps an experience she had in summer which she is recalling.
The third stanza takes us back to the moment when she experienced this “wonder upon wonder” and she alludes to Matthew 9: 20-22 when the bleeding woman touched Jesus’ garments and He then turned to her and told her she had been cured. The woman’s faith caused her to reach out in hope that she would be made whole and her prayer was granted which is a powerful Christian image of reaching out to Christ so that He may make one’s life whole. And in this poem Emily is touching the “hems” of a “summer’s day”, and she compares this to a bridge connecting her to her memory of that “summer’s day” which meant so much to her and causes her to weep in winter.
The final stanza is quite sad in that she tells us that “there’s no one here” so perhaps her memory of a “wonder upon wonder” on that “summer’s day” was of time she spent with someone: probably her friend Sue. And her line “That which sings so – speaks so” is quite beautiful in that I think she means the joy which makes us sing brings back the memory of that joy even when we are far removed from the event and thus it speaks to us across time and space, the way someone would call out to a friend who is on the other side of a bridge.
She completes the final stanza with the image of her “frock” which recalls the image of Jesus’ garments, yet rather than being cured she can only weep. In the depths of winter she is not wearing the “frock” (she is not touching the garments which heal) and so she seems to almost be waiting for permission to put the “frock” back on? I’m not too sure about the ending here, to be honest.
On the surface this is a cheeky letter sent to Sue charging her with not having written in so long that it has hurt her feelings. However, she is also describing how just through the use of words (or lack of them) we can send someone to their death or keep them alive. In a sense she is alluding to John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” in that before there was anything else, there was the capacity for language and without language there isn’t life, the universe, or anything. When Emily writes a poem she is, in essence, creating life (creating art), she is giving her emotions and feelings life through art, yet the absence of the words is the death of life and the death of poetry.
Embedded deep within this poem is a pun about keeping one’s word. Emily is frustrated that Sue has not written and has thus kept her word(s) to her self. Usually when we think of the expression keeping our word we think of someone keeping a promise and acting honorably and when someone fails to keep their word they are acting dishonorably; by keeping her word(s) she is not keeping her promise.
To expand on the idea of being honorable, notice how Emily uses the imagery of a soldier, the “epauletted Brother”. When we think of soldiers we think of men (and now women) who swear an oath to uphold a certain set of values and will do everything in their power to prevent others from disrupting those values. However, it is really words that make up the fabric of honor: an oath is a collection of words, and when a soldier is in battle they will put their lives at great risk all because they were ordered to (through the words of a superior). Thus when a soldier is killed on the battlefield, they are not only killed by the “sword” but also by the “barbed syllables” of their captain’s orders and, more generally, by the propaganda of their nation (and because of the propaganda of the opposing side).
Yet the soldier who dies for the losing side is the soldier who is “forgot”. Their side’s words no longer “Can pierce an armed man” because “Time” has forgotten where the words (and the soldiers) fell on the battlefield. All that remains is a ghostly image, what Emily refers to as “Time’s sublimest target” which can mean to rise “to a great height” (OED) but also can mean to be transformed into a “vapor” (OED). Thus the soldier who dies in defeat is “Time’s sublimest target” in that they are relegated to little more than a ghost memory, while the soldier who is victorious is lifted up and praised. Time is kind to one and forgets the other.
Thus when we keep our words to ourselves, we fail to give life to each other, we cannot inspire or order or declare our intentions, we are basically ghosts, but when we give our words we breathe life into each other, even those who may have died a long time ago such as a soldier who once fell in battle but is now remembered through a poem. The “word” is life and to withhold the word is to withhold the life.
Formally, the poem is broken up into two stanzas separated with a line break and seems to consist of two different speakers. In the first stanza it could be Emily asking the “Pilot” if they know where the “shore” is and how to avoid the “breakers” from the “storm” so that landing will be made easier. The second stanza is the reply from presumably the pilot who will “pilot thee” to the “silent West”. But beyond just separating speakers, this line break is a gulf between worlds: one one side the the person on the journey and the other is the guide who knows the way to the destination. This separation resembles a river and this “pilot” resembles the boatman Charon who carries people to Hades, though here she uses the imagery of the sea rather than the river Styx.
In the first line she refers to her current situation as being on “this wondrous sea – sailing silently”. Here death is “wondrous” and the soft “s” alliteration resembles the soft breeze that is filling her sails as she makes her journey, ghost-like, to the next world. Yet in lines three thru five, she seems concerned with navigation and bad weather. Though the “sea” may be “wondrous”, she seems aware of potential dangers and requires a guide to help her the rest of the way. Thus perhaps she is saying that when we die we still need a little help making the journey to the afterlife and that those of us who are unable to secure such help might wind up being lost forever.
In the “West”, however, there are no storms: it is “silent” and all “the sails [are] at rest” and she has been granted a guide because she asked for one. In the first line of the poem she had been “sailing silently” but in the second she breaks the silence and calls out for help. Perhaps she is alluding to prayer in which one calls out for help from God, or perhaps she is saying that in life a person cannot attain their destination alone and that we all require help from each other.
And the final line of the poem, “Ashore at last” can be read as not just being that she has been guided “ashore at last”, but that she has been assured that she will be guided and that she will find “Land” in “Eternity”. The paradox here, however, is that she uses “Eternity” but then speaks of a finality with “at last”. This is an interesting image to contemplate in that eternity could be a definite place with a definite shore, but when it’s compared to the image in the first line of someone in a boat in the vast “wondrous sea” which is a dreamlike image of being in a definite place surrounded by an eternity of nothingness (sea and sky all around such as in her poem ‘“Lethe” in my flower‘) she seems to be saying that life after death is assured and that our place in eternity is secured if we allow ourselves to reach out and ask for guidance when upon the treacherous seas of life.