What’s in a title?

PIGMY seraphs gone astray,
Velvet people from Vevay,
Belles from some lost summer day,
Bees’ exclusive coterie.
Paris could not lay the fold
Belted down with emerald;
Venice could not show a cheek
Of a tint so lustrous meek.
Never such an ambuscade
As of brier and leaf displayed
For my little damask maid.
I had rather wear her grace
Than an earl’s distinguished face;
I had rather dwell like her
Than be Duke of Exeter,
Royalty enough for me
To subdue the bumble-bee!

~Emily Dickinson

Pam: I like how the point of this poem seems to be that roses are better than people, because Emily, I completely agree. Sometimes, at least!

Brenna: Are roses ever worse than people? I mean.

Pam: But people are definitely frequently worse than roses.

Brenna: I love that she calls them “Velvet people.” “From Vevay,” whatever the heck that means. Now I Google!!

Pam: That’s the first thing I did!!

Brenna: First Google search result for “Vevay”: a town in Indiana. 😀

Pam: Apparently it’s a town in Indiana, which is named for a town in Switzerland.

Brenna: Okay, that makes more sense.

Pam: But that one is spelled “Vevey.” So is Emily’s spelling off, or did she really love Indiana?

Brenna: I cannot see Emily waxing poetic about Indiana. We’re talking about a person who thinks most bees are male, so I’m gonna go with “Emily’s spelling is off.” Could she have done it on purpose? Conflating Vevay and Vevey might underscore her point about how it doesn’t really matter who you are or where you’re from. Vevay, Vevey, whatever, roses are better.

Since she goes on to name Paris and Venice, and reference London, I feel like she’s going for the European city.

Pam: I think that’s a very interesting point! This is one of those (myriad) times when I wish we could call her up and ask her.

Brenna: Right?!Every other line…..

Pam: Agreed. She’s comparing roses to these European highlights.

Brenna: I just can’t get over the loveliness of referring to flowers as “velvet people.” I love it.

Pam: And specifically, places of fashion, I guess?

Brenna: Yes! Exclusive places.

Pam: Same. And she’s exactly right. There’s no other way to describe the texture of those really huge roses. They’re velvety! I like that this poem incorporates the sense of touch. Usually we write about roses’ scent, but I don’t think she touches on that here!

Brenna: Oooh, good point! There’s no scent at all in this poem. It’s all sight and touch.

Pam: This is all to show us that no matter what fine clothes you might wear, you will never be as high fashion as a rose. Isn’t that odd? She doesn’t touch on thorns, either.

Brenna: She does mention “brier.”

Pam: You’re right!! I totally missed that one.

Brenna: I think it’s a good observation, though. “Brier” is fairly subtle. Usually she likes to overtly remind us of something painful or mortal, something that mars the perfection. But this is 100% positive.

Pam: I also love that, despite talking about the “fashion” of roses, she’s comparing them to men. An earl? Nope, you’re nothing. Duke of Exeter? No thank you, I’d rather be a rose.

Brenna: Yes! And her roses are exclusively feminine. I so want this to be some kind of feminist manifesto.

Pam: I think it absolutely can be! She could have gone the “singing flowers in Alice in Wonderland” route, but she’s solely comparing them to the men, who are lacking.

Brenna: The undervalued–whether it’s nature vs. humans, men vs. women, rural vs. cultured–is always better. In this poem.

Pam: And, as you said, she talks of bees as male, yes? But says that roses–feminine–subdue them.

Brenna: Yup. She always thinks bees are dudes. Which was apparently a common misconception at the time. The fact that worker bees are female (that most bees are female) had been discovered, but a lot of people either didn’t realize or didn’t accept that fact.

Pam: To her eyes, flowers are producers and bees are takers, yes? It makes sense to equate them with specific genders if she thinks of them that way.

Brenna: There are other poems where she depicts bees as conquerors of flowers. But in this one, she flips that model. The rose vanquishes the bee. In one of the poems I read earlier this week, the bee is a knight. But in this one, the rose is victorious.

Pam: The title is telling, too, I think. This is not some rose that she sees out in town; it’s hers. She grew it. Her rose is better, stronger.

Brenna: Though the title isn’t hers, right?

Pam: Oh, you’re right! Darn it, collectors of the poems.

Brenna: Right?! Sometimes a title is so perfect, and then I have to remind myself that she never intended it.

Pam: She does say “my little damask maid.” So maybe it’s hers? It would have been such a good title, too!!

Brenna: Yes! And I think the general tone of the poem is very much a “MY thing is better than OTHER things” kind of vibe. Just because my thing is humbler and natural and everywhere and free, it’s not less than high-falutin’ things. My thing is, in fact, better than all those other things. And dudes.

Pam: Yes. Exactly. My thing is naturally better without having to put on airs or wear the latest clothing. It just is.

Brenna: Yes. She does a lot of this, doesn’t she? Arguing for the simple pleasures over the elaborate ones.

Pam: Yes. In this case, I get the sense that she’s saying, so what if I’m a bit of a homebody who really loves gardening? If it produces this kind of perfection, who wouldn’t be in love with it?

Brenna: Yes. She’s very insistent on herself, on her own identity and preferences. I like that. It’s very un-nineteenth-century of her.

Pam: Brenna, apparently damask is a kind of rose! I thought it odd to associate that fabric with plainness, but a damask rose is a highly scented one. So she is talking about fragrance after all!

Brenna: I knew damask was a rose, but I had no idea about the fragrance! Oooh, well-played, Emily!

Pam: I think I learn something new with every poem, honestly.

Brenna: SAME. And it does double-duty for touch because of course damask is also fabric and she knew it.

Pam: And now I’m looking at fragrant roses that are out of stock, so thank you for prompting me to empty my bank account but at a time of year when it’s not possible, Emily!

Brenna: Well, we learned about damask and Vevay, but otherwise I feel like this one is oddly straightforward. It seems like the happy ones usually are.

Pam: I appreciate that. She’s delivering a pretty forceful message and she’s not hiding in it.

Broadcloth Breasts

A shady friend for torrid days
Is easier to find
Than one of higher temperature
For frigid hour of mind.

The vane a little to the east
Scares muslin souls away;
If broadcloth breasts are firmer
Than those of organdy,

Who is to blame? The weaver?
Ah! the bewildering thread!
The tapestries of paradise
So notelessly are made!

~Emily dickinson

Pam: Oh, this one is oddn!It’s easier to find a shady friend on a hot day, than a warm friend on a cold one?

Brenna: I think so–“fair weather friends.” It’s easy to find friends who will stick with you when things are good. But those friends flee when they catch a whiff of trouble. And whose fault is it that some people are like this? God’s?? How weird! That is my paraphrase of this poem.

Pam: What are broadcloth breasts??

Brenna: I think broadcloth was cheaper/tougher than fine materials like organdy. More common. Less prestigious…but the less prestigious friends may be the better ones, the ones who are in it for the long haul. Just because someone looks pretty doesn’t mean they’re going to stick with you.

Pam: Fair. I get the broadcloth/organdy comparison. But. Breasts?

Brenna: “Breasts” because that’s where the heart is? But boy howdy, does that sound super-weird to modern ears.

Pam: It’s so bizarre. Like. Why not describe faces? Or hands? And muslin, of course, is both a fabric and the word you use for a test garment you make in order to insure that your pattern works.

Brenna: It is? I did not know that! Maybe the “muslin” friends, like the test garments, were never made to last.

Pam: Yes! I’m not sure how modern the terminology is to refer to test garments as muslins, but it’s used that way nowadays.

Brenna: I hope that meaning held back then–I think it adds a lot to the poem! Some friendships are never meant to last. They’re pleasant, surface relationships for pleasant, surface times. But when things get real, you need the broadcloth friends. The ones who will stick it out with you.

Pam: Ah! It’s so-called because garment makers typically used muslin, which was pretty cheap, to make the test garment. Then they could make the pattern again, with any adjustments, in the final material, which was probably more expensive. Yes! You want friends who can be made into sturdy bags. Not friends only good for party dresses.

Brenna: So maybe all friendships start as muslin ones? And some stand the test of time and become broadcloth. Some turn out to be organdy–pretty, but not lasting. Others just remain muslin. They never work out.

Pam: They’re basic friendships that don’t delve into anything deeper. Acquaintances, not kindred spirits.

Brenna: “Friends who can be made into sturdy bags”= my new favorite out-of-context quote.

Pam: You and I are BROADCLOTH.

Brenna: You know it!

Pam: I’m going to cross stitch that for you as a constant reminder of our weird friendship.

Brenna: That would be possibly the best gift of all time. You have to stitch it ON broadcloth.


Brenna: Have we discussed this poem enough? I think we have. Thanks for the firm broadcloth breasts, Emily.