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.

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.

Who?

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.