This poem from Emily Dickinson caught my eye this week. I found it in a volume of her poems for young people. Nonetheless, I heard it as an adult poem about adult pain. My comments follow the poem.
I have not told my garden yet,
Lest that should conquer me;
I have not quite the strength now
To break it to the bee.
I will not name it in the street,
For shops would stare, that I,
So shy, so very ignorant,
Should have the face to die.
The hillsides must not know it,
Where I have rambled so,
Nor tell the loving forests
The day that I shall go,
Nor lisp it at the table,
Nor heedless by the way
Hint that within the riddle
One will walk to-day!
Emily Dickinson: Poetry for Young People, edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin, illustrated by Chi Chung. Published by Sterling Publishing Co. (2008)
This poem is about death: Emily’s preoccupation with death, and her own death. Whether final or as daily reality. Each stanza adds depth to her poetic riddle.
Stanza 1. Emily thinks about her garden, the place that brings her happiness and peace. It seems she’s afraid she might not survive breaking the news, though we’re not yet certain what the news is. It’s clear this won’t be easy or happy news. Not for the garden, the bee, or her.
Stanza 2. Emily thinks about village shops that stare at her when she’s out and about. There she’s known as shy and perhaps ignorant. She has no intention of letting the shops know her plans. They wouldn’t believe that she, of all people, would have “the face to die.”
I take this “face to die” as setting her face toward death, which she names in the last line of the stanza. She faces death with determination, perhaps the way Jesus ‘set his face’ toward Jerusalem—the city in which he would die.
For Emily, it doesn’t matter what the shops or shoppers might think about her. She’s stronger than she’s given credit for. Indirectly, she’s saying they don’t know her at all. So why should she tell them anything at all about her “face to die.”
Stanza 3. Emily now thinks about the hillsides and the forests. She loves both settings yet determines to keep them in the dark. It seems that if she doesn’t tell the hillsides about it, they won’t tell the forests. Perhaps they’ll think she doesn’t love them anymore? Or perhaps the hillsides and forests will die of sorrow?
The verb ‘rambled’ has more than one meaning. It could mean rambling around in the woods, as well as the rambling of Emily’s voice speaking freely to the trees and hillsides. Not to ramble anymore would be a great loss for them and for her. Here she can speak out loud freely and directly. Yet she isn’t going to tell them the day she’ll “go.”
Stanza 4. Finally, Emily has no intention of talking about this at “the table,” which I take to be her family circle. Not even in what we might call baby talk that’s less than clear. She’s also determined not to suggest that “within the riddle” is a hint that “One will walk to-day!”
The last stanza seems to have two meanings: one about her family circle; the other about the poem itself. Which has me wondering whether this is ‘only’ a riddle, or a veiled clue to her unhappiness and desire, if not clear intention, to “walk to-day.” To die to her family and her beloved garden, and never return. A form of death no matter how you read the poem.
I don’t know whether Emily wrote this poem before or after she wrote I Years had been from Home. I do know these are the words of a woman in distress who chooses to tell the truth but tell it slant.
Yes, my heart goes out to her. Emily has a level of courage I haven’t often seen or heard in this life.
Thanks for visiting and reading, and leaving your own interpretive comments or questions if you’d like.
©Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 July 2018
Photo found at correntewire.com