Purple clover

THERE is a flower that bees prefer,
And butterflies desire;
To gain the purple democrat
The humming-birds aspire.

And whatsoever insect pass,
A honey bears away
Proportioned to his several dearth
And her capacity.

Her face is rounder than the moon,
And ruddier than the gown
Of orchis in the pasture,
Or rhododendron worn.

She doth not wait for June;
Before the world is green
Her sturdy little countenance
Against the wind is seen,

Contending with the grass,
Near kinsman to herself,
For privilege of sod and sun,
Sweet litigants for life.

And when the hills are full,
And newer fashions blow,
Doth not retract a single spice
For pang of jealousy.

Her public is the noon,
Her providence the sun,
Her progress by the bee proclaimed
In sovereign, swerveless tune.

The bravest of the host,
Surrendering the last,
Nor even of defeat aware
When cancelled by the frost.

~Emily Dickinson

Emily has a lot to say about purple clover. It’s a humble sort of flower, yet completely wonderful, too–often written off as a weed, but transmogrified into the sweetest honey.

White clover comes early here. Its blossoms carpet the lawn, providing some of the first nectar for pollinating insects. It’s small and low-growing, profuse, starring the green with tiny fireworks of pink-tinged white. The purple clover comes later. I just spotted some in the garden last week, and left it where it was. As gardeners go, I am probably a bit more whimsical than is strictly wise. There’s a wild poppy that reseeds itself year after year among the tomatoes and lettuce. I let it, and enjoy its random burst of color among the green.

The purple clover will stay in the garden at the edge of the bean patch. I will watch it for honeybees, maybe cut and dry some for herbal tea. It is a reminder that life is uncontrollable, persistent, and strangely sweet.

Spring springs eternal

A LADY red upon the hill
Her annual secret keeps;
A lady white within the field
In placid lily sleeps!

The tidy breezes with their brooms
Sweep vale, and hill, and tree!
Prithee, my pretty housewives!
Who may expected be?

The neighbors do not yet suspect!
The woods exchange a smile—
Orchard, and buttercup, and bird—
In such a little while!

And yet how still the landscape stands,
How nonchalant the wood,
As if the resurrection
Were nothing very odd!

~Emily dickinson

There’s a lovely quality of waiting to this poem–the anticipation of something beautiful and familiar, something expected and consistent. Spring is like that–we can depend upon it. It always comes, bringing with it its usual cast of characters. Though there may be fluctuations from year to year, it always arrives essentially on time.

Dickinson absolutely crams this poem with personification–it’s everywhere, in almost every line. The red and white ladies are probably specific plants she’s thinking of, but they could be any red and white spring blooms. I like how the poem ends with the notion of the earth itself not being overwhelmed by anticipation, as we human creatures often are when spring is near. The landscape is “still,” the wood “nonchalant.” Nature always trusts that spring is coming. It’s we humans who forget that, who get overwhelmed, distracted, who lose hope. But nature waits, patiently, knowing that all things arrive in their season.


BRING me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning’s flagons up,
And say how many dew;
Tell me how far the morning leaps,
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadths of blue!

Write me how many notes there be
In the new robin’s ecstasy
Among astonished boughs;
How many trips the tortoise makes,
How many cups the bee partakes,—
The debauchee of dews!

Also, who laid the rainbow’s piers,
Also, who leads the docile spheres
By withes of supple blue?
Whose fingers string the stalactite,
Who counts the wampum of the night,
To see that none is due?

Who built this little Alban house
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who ’ll let me out some gala day,
With implements to fly away,
Passing pomposity?

~Emily dickinson

This is peak Dickinson. This is perhaps The Most Emily Poem of all time. For starters, it’s a riddle. Dickinson piles on question after question, never answering them. There’s also a lot of exclaiming and rapture about nature. She mentions robins. She mentions bees. She even describes bees as “debauchee of dews,” a phrase she uses in another poem, the better-known “I taste a liquor never brewed.”

There are lots of unanswerable questions, lots of breathless delightings in the glories of nature. There are oodles of gorgeous and quirky descriptions: “how many dew,” “astonished boughs,” “withes of supple blue,” and on and on. There’s an obscure references–what is an “Alban house”? Is she talking about Scotland? Why?? Or is she referencing the saint? Again, why?? And, of course, in true Dickinsonian fashion, the poem ends in death–with the promise of resurrection.

“Till summer folds her miracle”

THE SPRINGTIME’S pallid landscape
Will glow like bright bouquet,
Though drifted deep in parian
The village lies to-day.

The lilacs, bending many a year,
With purple load will hang;
The bees will not forget the time
Their old forefathers sang.

The rose will redden in the bog,
The aster on the hill
Her everlasting fashion set,
And covenant gentians frill,

Till summer folds her miracle
As women do their gown,
Or priests adjust the symbols
When sacrament is done.

~Emily Dickinson

The lilacs are browning, their heady fragrance now a memory. How quickly flowers pass! Now the peonies are tight buds atop long green stalks, waiting. Lilies and irises are a promise only, thickets of green spikes.

The wildflowers, though, are hardier things, despite being smaller and seeming so delicate. Daisies are blooming in the field now. Dandelions and Queen Anne’s lace and all those little white and purple and yellow things I cannot name will flourish all summer long. But they, too, will give way to winter. Best to hold on to the beauty of these spring days as tightly as possible.


PINK, small, and punctual.
Aromatic, low,
Covert in April,
Candid in May,

Dear to the moss,
Known by the knoll,
Next to the robin
In every human soul.

Bold little beauty,
Bedecked with thee,
Nature forswears

~Emily dickinson

According to the title imposed on the poem after Dickinson’s death, this one is about the may-flower. I had to look it up, and this is what I found. My big takeaways: apparently they are highly fragrant, extremely delicate, and difficult to find. I’ve never seen one; the wildflower website I consulted says they grow in my state, but in sandy loam, which is the opposite of the red clay soil we have here in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.

Regardless of species, though, spring’s flowers are precious, fleeting, lovely. Your prompt for today: go outside and find them. Enjoy the flowers for a few moments, no matter how busy you may be. You won’t regret it.

Bereaved acknowledgment

I DREADED that first robin so,
But he is mastered now,
And I ’m accustomed to him grown,—
He hurts a little, though.

I thought if I could only live
Till that first shout got by,
Not all pianos in the woods
Had power to mangle me.

I dared not meet the daffodils,
For fear their yellow gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own.

I wished the grass would hurry,
So when ’t was time to see,
He ’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me.

I could not bear the bees should come,
I wished they ’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go:
What word had they for me?

They ’re here, though; not a creature failed,
No blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me,
The Queen of Calvary.

Each one salutes me as he goes,
And I my childish plumes
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking drums.

~emily dickinson

This is a strange one indeed. The speaker is talking about things that Dickinson typically gets excited about–robins, daffodils, bees–but instead of anticipating them, she tells us she has “dreaded” them. The robin “hurts a little,” the “pianos in the wood” can “mangle” her, the daffodils’ yellow can “pierce” her. If it’s aware of her needs, Nature ignores them, showing no deference to her feelings. She is the “Queen of Calvary”–the queen of suffering? The queen of salvation? What exactly does this mean?

Such a strange poem. The speaker describes the beauties of spring as torments and herself as “bereaved.” What is she grieving? Does the freshness and new life of spring remind her of something she can’t have, something she lost? Why does spring hurt?

There is something in these early days of spring–some underlying coldness on the sunniest days, some lingering frost–that reminds us that spring is not forever. Of all the beauties of the year, spring’s somehow seem the most fleeting, the most fragile. Blossoms are easily crushed, and bees may live for only weeks or days. Perhaps it’s this ephemerality that pains Dickinson–the knowledge that all this beauty, from the moment it bursts forth, is already passing into memory.

Pneumonia weather

I know a place where summer strives
With such a practised frost,
She each year leads her daisies back,
Recording briefly, “Lost.”

But when the south wind stirs the pools
And struggles in the lanes,
Her heart misgives her for her vow,
And she pours soft refrains

Into the lap of adamant,
And spices, and the dew,
That stiffens quietly to quartz,
Upon her amber shoe.

~Emily Dickinson

When I was a child, my mother called this “pneumonia weather.” The skies are clear blue, the sunlight warm–and yet there’s a lingering chill behind the glimmer, a reminder that winter hasn’t yet loosed its fingers completely. There will be days in the high seventies, even in the eighties. And there will be mornings when we wake to hard frost.

Only the hardiest blossoms survive this weather. Spring teases them from tight buds to tempt fate. Spring and autumn balance each other on either side of the wheel of the year in a way that summer and winter cannot. Summer and winter are opposites, but spring and autumn are nearly-identical twins. One is redheaded, one has locks of fern-green and forsythia–but they are like the same person seen coming and going.

In the Shenandoah Valley in winter, we exclaim over unseasonably warm days. We grumble about cold summer rains. But the wild swings in spring and autumn do not surprise us. There are a thousand seasons in each one–microseasons, shifting from one to the next as the sun arcs the sky. The daisies won’t arrive till full summer, but the snowy drifts of bloom lacing the apple branches take their chances. They are gamblers all. Maybe they will swell to fruit this summer. Or maybe they are only the ghosts of possibility, beads of quartz frost on amber shoes.

The Tulip

SHE slept beneath a tree
Remembered but by me.
I touched her cradle mute;
She recognized the foot,
Put on her carmine suit,–
And see!

Emily Dickinson

For such a short poem–only six lines!–there are interesting things happening here.

The tulip is female. She’s also, apparently, a child, since she’s still in the cradle–but if the poet remembers her, then she’s not a newly planted bulb.

She’s brought to life by a touch from the poet. We don’t know what state the tulip was in when the poet touches her, but she’s definitely not blooming, since she’s still sleeping. Tulips are funny that way: they seem to bloom, and then die, overnight.

The poet is speaking to someone else. That last line, “And see!,” is directed. Is she talking to the reader? To someone she brought to see the flower in bloom? We don’t know, but the tulip is definitely the most important thing in the poem–at least she gets pronouns.

There are only two rhymes in the poem, but they’re split. “Mute/foot/suit” all follow one another in lines 3, 4, and 5, but the long e sound of lines 1 and 2, “tree/me,” doesn’t repeat again until line 6 with “see.”

Every line contains six syllables, except for the sixth line, which only has two. It feels almost like two poems: reverence for the tulip, and then remembering that someone else is there, and hastily addressing them, too.


AS children bid the guest good-night,
And then reluctant turn,
My flowers raise their pretty lips,
Then put their nightgowns on.

As children caper when they wake,
Merry that it is morn,
My flowers from a hundred cribs
Will peep, and prance again.

Emily Dickinson

As so many of these poems do, this one makes me wonder what kind of flowers the poet was imagining, and how different they are from mine. This time of year, the only things blooming are my scrappy purple violas, but the daylilies are putting out new leaves like it’s their job. When they start blooming, somewhere around the end of May or beginning of June or Whenever They Feel Like It, each individual flower will stick around for just one day.

I didn’t know that when I bought them. Imagine me, burying five daylilies in the front yard bed in late September and then waiting, watching as the green leaves browned and wilted and fell away, as the green shoots began pushing forward in March, as the stems grew taller and taller–three or four or five per plant, as the stems birthed buds, as the squirrels began to eat the buds and I began to lose my absolute mind in battle with them, as the first flower opened–and was gone the next day.

Such a long wait for something that isn’t here very long. I’m not sure if I think of the daylilies as babies, exactly; they’re more like sulky teenagers who take forever to wake up and then wave at you from across the house for a minute before you lose them for the day.

Bittersweet blossoms

As children bid the guest good-night,
And then reluctant turn,
My flowers raise their pretty lips,
Then put their nightgowns on.

As children caper when they wake,
Merry that it is morn,
My flowers from a hundred cribs
Will peep, and prance again.

~Emily dickinson

Crocuses have begun peeping from the barren earth. Incongruously bright against the dead grass, they dot the brown with tiny firework-explosions of white and purple.

Each plant sends forth a single bloom, so when my newly ten-year-old son comes running with a minuscule blossom clamped between two fingers, I am lanced with bittersweetness. That flower is done, gone. My little boy, not so little anymore, still brings me the first flower he finds every spring.

Parenthood is like that, love laced with delight and punctuated by constant reminders that no moment is forever.