“Lethe” is one of the river’s of the underworld in classic mythology and according to The Aeneid, when a soul drinks from the river they forget everything and thus can move on. Lethe has often been alluded to in poetry to talk about memory and forgetting as well as explorations as to ideas and notions of the self and self-identity.
What is interesting is she begins the poem immediately with “Lethe”, with forgetting – the very first word is forgetfulness, yet she describes this as being part of, “in” the “flower”, as if the act of negation, the act of forgetting is a substance that exists within this “flower” that she holds. She doesn’t describe the “flower” other than to say it consists of “Merely flake of petal” because she is trying to get at the essence of the “flower” – it’s visual and physical characteristics are not what are important to her, what the flower means, what the flower does is what is important here.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger explores in his essay, The Origin of the Work Of Art, how a work of art unconceals (his terminology) a world that is greater than just the object presented in the work of art. For example, in Van Gogh’s painting, A Pair of Shoes, the subject is simply a pair of boots, but when we understand about those boots is far more encompassing than what is actually painted on the canvas. Through this simple painting we understand something about who wore those boots, perhaps they were a laborer and based on the condition of the boots, they worked very hard and were probably poor. We know something more than just that there is a picture of a pair of boots and that is what art does because art is somehow able to unconceal the world and all the things that connect to the world through the subject of the work of art.
Emily is doing the same thing here but rather than a pair of boots, for her it is the “flower” – and to go one steep closer, for us it is the poem itself. Emily is also a participant in this work of art because she is holding the “flower” in the poem what we hold in our hands; she is doing the work of discovering what is unconcealed when she looks at the “flower” at the same time we do as we read this poem.
And what has been unconcealed?
Well, on the surface level we see “Merely flake or petal” just as out “Eye beholds”. Her physical senses sees the object “flower” just as ours sees the physical object of a poem. Yet what is unconcealed is “the Bobolink”, the sound of a bird in nature and its hectic and joyous chirping. In fact, Emily probably had synesthesia in which a person would associate multiple senses to an object, such as seeing the color red when they read the number 1, or hearing a “bobolink” when they see a “flower”. A new sense is revealed when she holds the “flower”, a new world opens up to her and thus she not only sees the “flower” with her “Eye” but she “[perceives] the rose!”, the whole “rose” and everything that is associated with it, such as the garden, the bees that pollinate the flowers, and the chirping birds who eat the insects. All things are uncovered – unconcealed – when she holds a simple “flower” – the object is transformed into something beyond just its obvious characteristics.
Yet she started the poem with “Lethe” which is the opposite of remembering, or in this case, the opposite of having something revealed. Or is it? It could be that the poem begins with us in a state of forgetting and that holding the “flower” (or reading the poem) helps us remember the rest of the world – that the the space before the poem begins is a representation of our own state of living in a state of forgetfulness. Emily could be saying that we walk around only interacting with objects at a surface level – what the “Eye behold”. Yet she could also be saying that the act of forgetting the world of mere objects allows us to see the world behind these objects, that forgetting is actually a process of unconcealing a larger truth in which a “flower” becomes a “rose”. A flower is, after all, just a pollen delivery system so that the species can procreate, but a “rose” is a symbol of love, of friendship, even of troubles when we prick our fingers on the thorns. A “rose” is not just a rose, but what a rose means to us.
What Emily is asking of us is to “perceive”, not just merely see.