The lower metres of the year

The murmuring of bees has ceased;
But murmuring of some
Posterior, prophetic,
Has simultaneous come,—

The lower metres of the year,
When nature’s laugh is done,—
The Revelations of the book
Whose Genesis is June.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

I love this one. And not just because of the bees. Dickinson begins with a specific, concrete example–this is the time of year when bees are no longer active. Not visibly, anyway. They are clustered in their hives in cold weather, keeping each other warm with their little bee bodies. While the cold must be stressful, worker bees in winter can live for several months. During the height of a honeyflow in summer, a worker’s lifespan is measured in weeks. So while the cold is a danger, winter is also a time of rest for bees. But I digress. Dickinson says that while the bees’ murmuring has ended, for now, another has started. I tend to think that she’s referring here not to an actual sound, but to the signs of winter itself.

In the second stanza, she continues her expansion from the specific to a bigger, more philosophical idea. In this envisioning of the year, June is the beginning, the Genesis–and why not? After all, it’s totally arbitrary to start the new year in January. The ancient Celts began their new year with Samhain and celebrations of the harvest. You can start the new year anywhere in the circle of the year, really.

So winter, for Dickinson, is “the lower metres of the year.” Nature is done laughing, finished with explosions of vegetation and animal life. It is time for rest, time to withdraw into the hive, to come together for warmth, to while away the coldest, darkest part of the year in communion with ourselves and one another.


My friend must be a bird,
Because it flies!
Mortal my friend must be,
Because it dies!
Barbs has it, like a bee.
Ah, curious friend,
Thou puzzlest me!

~Emily Dickinson

This poem perfectly captures the perplexing aspects of human friendship. Friends fly away, they die, they leave, they wound. They can puzzle us infinitely, because they, like us, are human and contradictory. No one has the power to injure us quite like someone we love.

This poem appears in collections of Dickinson’s poetry with love poems, and perhaps it is one–but it could be true of any kind of human relationship.

Summer’s last rites

Image via

THE GENTIAN weaves her fringes,
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness, 5
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angles are.

It was a short procession,—
The bobolink was there, 10
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing,—
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph, 15
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze, amen!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating poem. Its basic meaning is clear–it’s about the passage of summer into autumn, the beginning of the slow death of the year that somehow creeps up on us every trip around the sun.

The first stanza lays out botanical cues that summer is ending. I had to look up gentian (a flower/herb). I don’t know what to make of the second stanza, with its “below this morning” and being “where the angles are.” Something about the angle of the light, maybe?? No idea on this one.

As a beekeeper, I love the third, middle stanza, with its “aged bee” as the officiant of summer’s funeral. The notion of an aged bee is rich with meaning. At the risk of falling down a bee-geek hole, it’s worth noting that honeybees during the summer live for a matter of weeks, due to the stresses of their constant foraging, but during the winter they can live for months. Ironically, the “harder” time of the year is not their harder time. Still, even a life-span of months hardly seems “aged,” and I suspect Dickinson is using the word ironically to show how quickly summer seems to pass.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker expresses a desire to follow summer to wherever it’s gone, rather than remain for the long winter. Relatable. The line “Summer, sister, seraph” echoes the structure and rhythm of her poem that begins, “I never lost as much but twice.” The penultimate line of that one is “Burglar, banker, father,” and I can’t read this one without hearing echoes of that one, which is also about loss–but of a person rather than a season.

The final stanza of this poem is especially effective. The rhyme scheme, which has been mostly slant up to this point, suddenly disappears. Four-line stanzas abruptly give way to a three-line mock liturgy. The poem, like summer itself, is cut short.

Recipe for a rose

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn,
A flash of dew, a bee or two,
A breeze
A caper in the trees,—
And I ’m a rose!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

This is a small and charming poem. Dickinson seems to be laying out the recipe for making a rose. All the usual parts are required–but there’s more. A rose is made of more than itself. In order for it to really be a rose, the rest of nature is required–water, air, other living things. What’s really lovely about this poem is Dickinson’s characteristically evocative language–“a flash of dew,” “a caper in the trees”–and how she interrupts her own meter in the fifth line.

These things are all that are required, according to the poet, to become a rose. There’s one more thing, though, that she doesn’t mention but rather demonstrates–a rich and lively imagination.


South winds jostle them,
Bumblebees come,
Hover, hesitate,
Drink, and are gone.

Butterflies pause
On their passage Cashmere;
I, softly plucking,
Present them here!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a lovely little poem. Though on its face it reads like a riddle, never naming its subject, the reader knows that the poet is talking about flowers. The language is typically evocative–jostling winds, drinking bees, and butterflies “On their passage Cashmere.” The whole thing sounds like it could have been lines penned and pinned on a bouquet of flowers gathered for a friend–a gift to be presented with love and reverence.

bees abashless

Source: Emily Dickinson Archive,

Where every bird is bold to go
And bees abashless play
the foreigner before he knocks
must thrust the tears away–

Reading Dickinson’s poems in her own hand, it’s hard to understand how and why all those pesky punctuation marks and capital letters ended up in the printed versions.

In this poem, Dickinson is of course talking about death, because there has never been a poet more on brand. What’s lovely and poignant, in a multilayered way, about this one is the contrast between birds/bees and the presumably human “foreigner.” Dickinson’s word choice implies that while birds and bees are part of nature and therefore exist comfortably within its cycles of life and death, human animals are different–we get upset about it.

The image of the foreigner thrusting away tears is a touching one, but deeper down there’s another level of tragedy–the fact that we human critters have become so distanced from the natural world that we cannot be bold, cannot play “abashless,” but must always be not only aware of but in fear of our inevitable end.

To be a bee

Could I but ride indefinite,
As doth the meadow-bee,
And visit only where I liked,
And no man visit me,

And flirt all day with buttercups,
And marry whom I may,
And dwell a little everywhere,
Or better, run away

With no police to follow,
Or chase me if I do,|
Till I should jump peninsulas
To get away from you,—

I said, but just to be a bee
Upon a raft of air,
And row in nowhere all day long,
And anchor off the bar,—
What liberty! So captives deem
Who tight in dungeons are.

~Emily Dickinson

My bees, in the true spirit of this poem, were not feeling cooperative this morning, so you get, instead of a lovely close-up of a honeybee in a meadow, this picture of my little apiary instead. This was about as close as I could get without inciting rebellion. There must be some interesting weather just over the horizon–the girls are usually very sociable.

But why should they be? No one feels like it all the time. As Dickinson describes it, the temptation to seek freedom from society can be nearly overpowering. To go anywhere, do whatever, avoid annoying people, escape consequence, see the world–these are mighty inducements.

The bee’s life, as Dickinson describes it, is wildly, perfectly free. “Indefinite,” “everywhere,” “nowhere,” “liberty”–her words paint a picture of the bee’s existence as completely unfettered, dictated only by individual preference and desire, by whim and whimsy. The final stanza itself breaks free of the constraints of the four-line pattern set up at the beginning of the poem, overflowing the poet’s own boundaries.

Of course, Dickinson’s understanding of bees being what it is, this is all a lovely fiction. A bee is almost a part of a larger organism. She exists for her hive, and acts in its interests. Bees are hardly whimsical beings. They are tremendously hard workers.

Still, the image is a lovely one, and as they trace their golden flights through the sun-dappled summer air, my honeybees look like servants only of whimsy.

Bonus photo accidentally taken as a bee decided that “no man visit[s] me” and proceeded to tangle herself in my hair, at which point I just about jumped a peninsula.

A summer love song

I envy seas whereon he rides,
I envy spokes of wheels
Of chariots that him convey,
I envy speechless hills

That gaze upon his journey;
How easy all can see
What is forbidden utterly
As heaven, unto me!

I envy nests of sparrows
That dot his distant eaves,
The wealthy fly upon his pane,
The happy, happy leaves

That just abroad his window
Have summer’s leave to be,
The earrings of Pizarro
Could not obtain for me.

I envy light that wakes him,
And bells that boldly ring
To tell him it is noon abroad,—
Myself his noon could bring,

Yet interdict my blossom
And abrogate my bee,
Lest noon in everlasting night
Drop Gabriel and me.

~Emily Dickinson

Though it’s not a sonnet by any stretch, that’s what this poem reminds me of most–a plaintive love song wherein the speaker envies anything and everything in proximity to the beloved. It’s evocative of Romeo’s wish to be a glove upon Juliet’s hand that he might touch her cheek. Dickinson’s speaker wishes to be the sea beneath the beloved’s ship, the wheels of his carriage, the hills he passes, the nests under his eaves, the fly on his window, the leaves of nearby trees. Even the wealth of Pizarro, in the form of earrings, couldn’t buy her the delights these things enjoy in being close to her beloved.

As in a sonnet, there’s a shift toward the end of this poem, beginning with the telling Yet. In the final stanza, she asks that her blossom be prohibited, her bee done away with (presumably these are forms she might take in order to be close to him, and of course they carry their own romantic/sexual imagery). The “noon” she longs for, the fully developed connection to her beloved, might drop her into “everlasting night,” and that would be worse than her current longing.

In which Pam reads the poem backwards, but to be fair, she is trapped under a sleeping child and typing one-handed

Did the harebell loose her girdle
To the lover bee,
Would the bee the harebell hallow
Much as formerly?

Did the paradise, persuaded,
Yield her moat of pearl,
Would the Eden be an Eden,
Or the earl an earl?

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: Do you have any thoughts about the racy bee poem?

Pam: What is a harebell?

Brenna: A flower.

Pam: Only that this sounds like it was intended to be a tongue twister and I’m having trouble unpacking it!

It’s pretty!

Brenna: It is! It looks like bluebells.

I feel like all she’s saying is that if the harebell was easy to get, the bee would not appreciate it as much? I don’t know…do bees appreciate? I mean, bees are amazing, but I feel like she’s putting a LOT on them here. They seem like a stand-in metaphor for her…but for what? Humans in general?

Pam: Ooooooh that makes sense!!! I was reading it backwards and so confused!!

Brenna: LOL Backwards would definitely make it a tongue twister!

Pam: Right? But bees and flowers have a transactional relationship

Pathetic fallacy, Emily

Brenna: Yes! But she writes about them as if they don’t. As if bees are these lecherous parasites. But TBH she thinks bees are dudes, so there’s that.

Pam: What’s up with the earl?

Brenna: No. Idea. I get the heaven bit. If heaven was easily obtainable, would it really be heaven? But the earl….??? Is “earl” a metaphor for something of worth? I feel like she’s pushing really hard for the rhyme, which is weird because hello, Emily Dickinson, Queen of the Slant Rhyme.

Pam: Right?? Tongue twister. Or a pointed jab at someone.

Brenna: Ah! Maybe! Wasn’t there an earl in another one we read not too long ago? Or maybe I am making this up…Maybe she knew a guy named Earl??

Um, this is interesting: According to her, this is A Racy Poem. Also a feminist manifesto. And I have to say, as much as I love me a good feminist manifesto, I am having trouble as a feminist beekeeper going with this whole “bees as lecherous dudebros” metaphor.

Pam: Oh wow. Huh.

Brenna: Pam, can you imagine if Emily Dickinson had known that worker bees are all female? It would have BLOWN HER MIND. And changed half her poems.

Pam: I feel like this one might deserve a pic of a bee on a flower and that musing.

Brenna: LOL

Pam: How would her poems have changed if she’d known???

Brenna: She couldn’t have used bees as a metaphor for creepsters, for starters! And I wonder whether she’d have still used them to symbolize God in other poems. I feel like she’s maligning bees. Poor bees never did anything to Emily Dickinson. Unless she got stung a lot. Even so. Maybe she got burned by a beekeeper.

Pam: Maybe she was allergic to honey. Or hated the smell of beeswax candles.

Brenna: Is that even possible?

Pam: I don’t know.

Brenna: Should we call it a day? I am tempted to just copy/paste this whole convo without editing.

Pam: Do it. It’s perfect.

More bees!

Come slowly – Eden!
Lips unused to Thee –
Bashful – sip thy Jessamines –
As the fainting Bee –

Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums –
Counts his nectars –
Enters – and is lost in Balms.

~Emily Dickinson

I couldn’t find anything that seemed appropriate for Father’s Day, so here is a picture of a bee and yet another Dickinson poem that mentions bees. Because you can never have too many bees.