A fame petite

A modest lot, a fame petite,
A brief campaign of sting and sweet
Is plenty! Is enough!
A sailor’s business is the shore,
A soldier’s—balls. Who asketh more
Must seek the neighboring life!

~Emily Dickinson

In this poem, Dickinson seems to be arguing that we should be content with what we have. A sailor’s business is sailing, a soldier’s fighting. Anyone who wants more should look elsewhere than their own life.

It’s interesting to read this poem in light of the traditional arguments that Dickinson didn’t want to be famous, that she was an introverted recluse who didn’t seek an audience for her poems. This has always felt like an odd reading to me–why would she write poetry and save it if she had no intention of putting it out into the world?

New reimaginings of Dickinson’s life seem to be challenging the notion of the reclusive poet. Though some of Dickinson’s poems seem to focus on the quiet domestic blisses and the joys of being “nobody,” I can’t help but think that she wanted her words to be read. There’s something hugely ambitious in so much of her poetry. We can probably never know for sure what she was thinking, what she really wanted, but my guess is that it wasn’t as modest or petite as the fate she advocates for in this poem.

Out of joint

ARCTURUS is his other name,—
I ’d rather call him star!
It ’s so unkind of science
To go and interfere!

I pull a flower from the woods,—
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath,
And has her in a class.

Whereas I took the butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in cabinets,
The clover-bells forgot.

What once was heaven, is zenith now.
Where I proposed to go
When time’s brief masquerade was done,
Is mapped, and charted too!

What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I ’m ready for the worst,
Whatever prank betides!

Perhaps the kingdom of Heaven’s changed!
I hope the children there
Won’t be new-fashioned when I come,
And laugh at me, and stare!

I hope the father in the skies
Will lift his little girl,—
Old-fashioned, naughty, everything,—
Over the stile of pearl!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

Let’s do another prompt! Because it’s NaNo season, and that’s how my brain is operating, apparently..

What I love about this poem is the way it articulates a sneaking suspicion that many of us have–that we were born in the wrong time, that our attitudes and priorities are so different from those of the majority that we’re not sure we belong here.

So your prompt is this–pick a character (sure, you could choose your MC, but what if you chose the villain?) and write about their favorite time in history that isn’t their own. Why does it appeal to them? Do they feel like they’d belong better there? What does this out-of-jointness say about them, and how does it affect their actions? dress? attitudes? behaviors? You might unlock something really interesting.

In which Emily is not G-rated and there is a whole lot going on

The thought beneath so slight a film
Is more distinctly seen,—
As laces just reveal the surge,
Or mists the Apennine.

~Emily Dickinson

So much going on in this tiny poem. It’s just a simile, really, but there is all sorts of stuff to unpack. First, Emily Dickinson talking about boobs. !! Definitely not one I ever saw in a middle school English textbook. Then there’s the comparing of the “surge” to mountains, which is a pretty clichéd metaphor for breasts, but still lovely with the correspondence between lace and mist.

But the real gist of the poem is that thoughts are clearer when slightly clouded, and this is a fascinating idea. I wonder what the “film” is that she’s talking about. She seems to be thinking of something specific–“so slight a film”–but the reader has no real clue as to what that film is. Is she talking about language? tone? something else?

I don’t know…but I do know I’ve already expended many more words in trying to unpack this poem than Dickinson ever needed to write it, and that is as good a definition of what poetry is as anything else I can think of.

Sunrise // Sunset

I ’LL tell you how the sun rose,—
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets, 5
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile 10
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars, 15
And led the flock away.

~Emily Dickinson

I’ve read this one many, many times. I like it–it’s a vivid and accurate description of sunrise and sunset. I’ve struggled with what exactly to say about it, since it’s so well-known and seems so straightforward.

Every reading of a poem opens up new possibilities for understanding, and as I sit at my desk in the lean dark hour before sunrise, it occurs to me for the first time that there is an air of the mysterious pervading this seemingly straightforward poem.

Though the speaker begins by declaring that she’ll tell us how the sun rose, her soft exclamation at the end of the second stanza undermines this confidence. She says “That must have been the sun!” as if she’s not entirely sure.

Then, in the next line, she tells us that she doesn’t know how the sun set. She proceeds to tell us exactly how it set. There’s a rich contradiction running through this poem. Does she or doesn’t she know what she’s seeing? In the case of both sunrise and sunset, she tells us that she doesn’t know, but shows us that she does.

What to do with this? Is she just being coy? Or is she saying something here about the human understanding of nature, about our perceptions of reality?

Maybe she’s saying something about the role of the poet, about the power of poetry. She begins by declaring she’ll tell us something, then backpedals to qualify it. She then tells us what she doesn’t know, and proceeds to describe it. Maybe this isn’t a poem about sunrise and sunset–maybe it’s a poem about the power of language to engage the world, to make sense of it, to connect us with the larger universe.

Which, sir, are you?

In lands I never saw, they say,
Immortal Alps look down,
Whose bonnets touch the firmament,
Whose sandals touch the town,—

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A myriad daisies play.
Which, sir, are you, and which am I,
Upon an August day?

~Emily Dickinson

One of the gorgeous things about poetry is that it often unfolds slowly, like a flower. You have to wait for it. Its meanings unfurl gradually, and you can read a poem several times before the magical reading that suddenly unlocks the final key to its meaning.

That has been my experience of this poem. I’ve read it several times while paging through my copy of Dickinson’s poem. Each time, I thought, “I have no idea what to do with this. It’s just Emily being all Emily in the most annoying way–“Big strong man, I am so small!”

Somehow, though, I read it yet again a few days ago and it fell open, like one of those puzzle boxes that unlatch easily the moment you hit on the right spot to press. This poem is Emily being all Emily, but in the best way.

It initially reads as flirty Emily, which is definitely not the Emily we’re all taught to know in English classes. She starts out sounding very innocent and ignorant: “In lands I never saw,” and follows it up with “they say,” suggesting that she’s getting her information secondhand, that she doesn’t probably really know what she’s talking about. She then proceeds to personify the Alps as if she has seen them, right down to the little daisies playing at their feet.

The Alps are “immortal,” they “look down,” their “bonnets touch the firmament,” their feet are “everlasting.” They stand in stark contrast to the “meek” daisies playing around them. The Alps are eternal, the daisies fleeting.

Dickinson ends her poem with a question to an unnamed man: “Which, sir, are you, and which am I,/ Upon an August day?” It’s this question that truly unlocks the meaning of the poem, like that last little piece you press on the puzzle box when you’ve just about given up.

The tone here is so flirty and coy. Of course she’s the daisies and he’s the immortal Alps. She’s flattering him, setting him up.


She poses the question, and it’s the fact that it is a question that unlocks the wonderful subversiveness of this poem. The man is going to read this and think, “I’m the Alps, duh!” But Dickinson’s ending with the question itself makes us ask. Which one is which? The fact that the end of the poem is a question mark opens it up to interpretation. What if he’s the daisies and she’s the Alps? What if the woman is eternal and powerful and not the man?

But again, she ends with a question, and this to me is the real meaning and genius of the poem. The fact that she does ask, that she does set up a potentially subversive answer, is important. The poem isn’t really about who’s the Alps and who’s the daisies–it’s about the fact that she dares to pose this as a question in the first place.

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.


AN altered look about the hills;
A Tyrian light the village fills;
A wider sunrise in the dawn;
A deeper twilight on the lawn;
A print of a vermilion foot;
A purple finger on the slope;
A flippant fly upon the pane;
A spider at his trade again;
An added strut in chanticleer;
A flower expected everywhere;
An axe shrill singing in the woods;
Fern-odors on untravelled roads,—
All this, and more I cannot tell,
A furtive look you know as well,
And Nicodemus’ mystery
Receives its annual reply.

~Emily Dickinson

April is here at last, bearing with it all the telltale signs. The light looks different in spring, as if the whole world is breathing in deeply yet quietly. The redbud trees are beginning to flush with a faint haze of purple. Flies are making their way in, somehow. Spiders have been plying the corners all year long, of course, but now that the flies are back, there’s cause for much celebratory and anticipatory web-construction. My chanticleer definitely has an added strut, though here we call him Louis XIV, and he does his best to live up to the name, loudly greeting the sun well before it appears and shepherding the hens around the yard, fussing them to safety when a red-tailed hawk soars by overhead. Around here, there aren’t so many axes ringing out–the sharp echoes here are from distant neighbors testing the sights on shotguns, preparing to scare crows and groundhogs away from spring plantings. The smell of spring is lush, wet, mineral. It smells at once like rain, pollen, and groundwater, like sunshine and sap and hope. It’s difficult to adequately describe–it’s a sight glimpsed briefly, a faint scent, a fleeting sound.

What does spring look, smell, taste, sound, feel like in your corner of the world?