granite lip

If I should n’t be alive
When the robins come,
Give the one in red cravat
A memorial crumb.

If I could n’t thank you,
Being just asleep,
You will know I ’m trying
With my granite lip!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Sheesh, Emily. This is another one of those “poor lil’ Emily” poems that seems so wildly at odds with poems like “Because I could not stop for Death.” Is she writing from the perspective of a child? That would explain the pathetic tone and the simplistic diction. I’m not sure. I do like the line about the “granite lip”–it evokes both the cold stiffness of the dead and their stone memorials. There’s a wonderfully weird sort of suggestion here of the speaker somehow morphing into her own memorial, becoming the stone angel of her own grave. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s the end of a long day.

It’s strange to try to reconcile all the different Emilys. I don’t know if it’s even possible, aside from spouting some vague platitudes about how we all contain worlds within ourselves.

just a drop

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

In my senior year of college, I played Emily Dickinson in the play Come Slowly, Eden. This was one of many Dickinson poems that were part of the script. It has stuck with me ever since.

There is something very raw about this poem. It doesn’t follow Dickinson’s usual meter. There’s no real rhyme or slant rhyme. It’s as if the words are pouring forth unchecked.

Yet it’s carefully constructed. Case in point: the phrase “rapt with frost.” “Rapt” here is “spellbound,” “transported,” “silenced.” It’s a homophone, however, for “wrapped,” which works equally well, and the sound of one is surely meant to recall the sound of the other.

Dickinson’s questioning of religion is on full display here, too. The notion of God as “economical” at the expense of compassion is piercing, as is the implication that God “keeps his oath to sparrows” but not human beings.

It’s a powerful poem. There’s something extremely Romantic about it–a spontaneous outpouring of powerful emotions. I love it–and it chills me to the bone.

a bird

A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.

~Emily Dickinson

Though I love digging deep into poems for their secret meanings, I’m content to appreciate this one on its surface. It’s a lovely close observation of one tiny element of nature–a bird hopping down a path.

The speaker’s delight in the observation spills over in her language. There’s a wonderful contrast between the first stanza, which makes the bird out to be almost cannibalistis–the angleworm he eats is described as a “fellow”–and the second stanza, where the bird courteously yields right-of-way to a passing beetle.

The final stanza is loveliest of all. Dickinson’s description of the bird’s flight is as flawless as that flight itself. The bird is so intimately a part of its surroundings that its flight does not rend the air but becomes part of it, and the human observer can only look on in wonder.


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.