Gentian

GOD made a little gentian;
It tired to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature 5
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come 10
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”

Image via Pexels.com

Emily Dickinson apparently really liked gentians. I have only just learned of them this week. That’s about all I’ve got for today, because life has gotten zooey and I do not have time to contemplate gentians at the moment. Here’s hoping you’ve got a little more wiggle room!

Summer’s last rites

Image via Pexels.com

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.

Apparently with no surprise

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.

The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.

~Emily Dickinson

What a weird and wonderful little poem! The flower is unsurprised by its own death, the speaker tells us. Yet the flower is happy anyway, at least until the moment of beheading. The frost which kills it is “accidental,” just playing around. Dickinson goes on, however, to refer to the frost as an “assassin” in the second stanza, which does not sound accidental at all. “Unmoved” by all the drama below, the sun continues marking off days, and God approves of all of this.

What if we were more like flowers, happy as much as we could possibly be, knowing and accepting that the assassin will eventually come for us, in season, too? What if we accepted life’s cycles instead of fighting them at every turn? The last stanza of this poem sounds so cold, but it might also read as God’s approval for the rightness of meeting nature where it is, not warring against it. The frost is playing, the flower is happy, and death will be the end of the latter–but this is as it should be.

Definitely not my favorite

SO bashful when I spied her,
So pretty, so ashamed!
So hidden in her leaflets,
Lest anybody find;

So breathless till I passed her, 5
So helpless when I turned
And bore her, struggling, blushing,
Her simple haunts beyond!

For whom I robbed the dingle,
For whom betrayed the dell, 10
Many will doubtless ask me,
But I shall never tell!

~Emily Dickinson

I’ve been sitting here staring at this poem, trying to think of something nice to say about it, but it’s the end of a long day and I am all up in my feelings about consent. So I’m going to heed one of my mom’s favorite old sayings: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Dews & sands

Angels in the early morning
May be seen the dews among,
Stooping, plucking, smiling, flying:
Do the buds to them belong?

Angels when the sun is hottest 5
May be seen the sands among,
Stooping, plucking, sighing, flying;
Parched the flowers they bear along.

~Emily Dickinson

Over the past few weeks, our weather here in the Shenandoah Valley has fluctuated wildly, as per usual. The oppressive heat of August finally broke toward the end of the month. Storms lashed the mountains, spilling rain over the blue slopes of the Alleghenies.

Now the temperature is climbing again. The skies cleared by rain a day or two ago are clotted with white clouds piling on top of each other. (Sometimes, when I squint my eyes just so, I can imagine that the towering clouds are mountains, unbelievably tall, dwarfing the planet itself.)

Hurricane season is well underway, and it is strange to think that in this oppressive heat, a storm is barrelling down on us. The winds and rain in the Atlantic will strike us, dissipated a good bit, by the end of this week, tearing the first-golding leaves from walnut trees and flinging them in a damp scatter across still-green grass.

Autumn is coming. The flowers that are dew-soaked in the morning will soon be parched, or storm-torn. The wheel of the year spins on.

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 Pexels.com.

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.

bouquet

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.

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.

But.

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.

Mother Nature

NATURE, the gentlest mother,
Impatient of no child,
The feeblest or the waywardest,–
Her admonition mild

In forest and the hill
By traveller is heard,
Restraining rampant squirrel
Or too impetuous bird.

How fair her conversation,
A summer afternoon,–
Her household, her assembly;
And when the sun goes down

Her voice among the aisles
Incites the timid prayer
Of the minutest cricket,
The most unworthy flower.

When all the children sleep
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light her lamps;
Then, bending from the sky,

With infinite affection
And infiniter care,
Her golden finger on her lip,
Wills silence everywhere.

An unworthy flower thanks the gentlest mother. Today, find something beautiful, and thank whoever needs thanking.

On the bleakness of my lot

ON the bleakness of my lot
Bloom I strove to raise.
Late, my acre of a rock
Yielded grape and maze.

Soil of flint if steadfast tilled
Will reward the hand;
Seed of palm by Lybian sun
Fructified in sand.

This is part of my bleak lot–but instead of grape and maize, I have marigold transplants from my mother-in-law’s garden. So amazed that they survived, grew, and bloomed, I had to take a picture to prove that I hadn’t killed them.

Steadfast? That’s not me, not about much. Rewarded, though: every day.