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
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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 Dickinson begins with a specific, concrete example–this is the time of year when bees are no longer active.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

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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
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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.