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25 June 2011

Nobody knows this little Rose—

Nobody knows this little Rose—
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it—
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey—
On its breast to lie—
Only a Bird will wonder—
Only a Breeze will sigh—
Ah Little Rose—how easy
For such as thee to die! 
                                                             - F 11 (1858)

I wonder how the recipients of flowers felt about these little accompanying poems. I read somewhere that during her life, Emily was more known for her gardening than for her poems. This one might make the recipient a bit uneasy with its almost maudlin ending where the "Little Rose" dies, disappointing not only Bee, Bird, and Breeze but poor Butterfly who made a long journey just to lie on the breast of the flower.
     But this is a parable of the life and death of humans as well. A loved one may die, to be held up to God, in the prime of her beauty, missed by friends near and far. Yet the death of just another flower, just another common person--despite the joy their beauty brings, is a small matter. The allusion to God comes early as the second line suggests the Rose might be a pilgrim, or at least  might have become a pilgrim had not its life been cut short. Dickinson even adopts the role of the Savior by plucking the little pilgrim from its 'ways' and lifting it up--to God. She is the one who decides which flower will live and which will die.
   The poem is knit together by several devices:
  - repeated rhymes, primarily those that rhyme with Bee and Butterfly
  - alliteration: Bee, butterfly, breast, Bird, Breeze
  - and repeated phrases ("Only a ...").
          The first four lines use Ballad form and trip off the tongue with their lilting iambs. But the next and mirroring lines begin dactyllaly, and that gives the long "o" of "Only" extra emphasis: "Only a Bee will miss it-- / Only a Butterfly. This underscores the irony. We are intended to bemoan the loss of Bee and Butterfly, Bird and Breeze--just as we would pity those mourning a dear departed one.

If I had received a rose with that poem I would feel a bit guilty. But then I would gratefully tape the poem above my desk.


  1. Yeah but what form is it a lyric, ballad......?

  2. Great poem analysis!!!

  3. I think 'miss' could also refer to overlook. There so many Dickinson poems where the alternate word definition still makes some sense. So, in this case, the purpose of the rose for the bee is to provide nectar and for the butterfly it is respite from journey. If the rose is no longer there, could the bee simply overlook it's absence in the presence of another rose? I agree the interpretation becomes slightly harder when it's absence causes a bird to wonder and the wind to sigh, but the last two lines lend support--could 'how easy' refer to more than just the simple cut of the scissors and also 'how easy' it is to be forgotten (perhaps after death)?

    If it is read like this, then the image of a lofty bird with it's head up in the sky might also work: as it's the only thing that wonders about the lost rose. While the wind, well, is it not perpetually sighing? Does anything or anyone else long for the rose?

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think that in terms of "miss" meaning "overlook," that the first line indicates the rose is easily overlooked. So it wouldn't be "only" the bee who overlooks it. I agree with you that Dickinson is suggesting it is easy to be forgotten after death.

  4. This is a word play. "little rose" means literally Rosette.

    1. Okay, but how does that affect how one reads the poem?

    2. Think of Napoleon’s hat with rosette. The rosette went to Moscow and return back. So she was a great pilgrim or traveler, but never attracted rose-lovers. Her death is painless if burned at stake, or beheaded by scissors. So the answer to her riddle is rosette.

  5. Franklin infers that ED composed ‘Nobody knows this little rose’ (F11) in 1858, then made a copy and gave her original to Susan D who, in turn, gave it to Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Daily Republican. Bowles was in Amherst June 29-30, 1858, to report on a hay-mowing contest between newly designed machines and had spent the night at Evergreens, the elegant new home of Austin and Susan. Built on Dickinson property 100 yards west of the family’s 50-year-old “Homestead”, ED gave an understated impression of the distance between houses when she said Evergreen was “a hedge away” in ‘One sister have I’ (F5).

    Susan probably gave Bowles the poem during his visit, and he published it on August 2, 1858, with this explanatory note: “To Mrs. --- , with a Rose. [Surreptitiously communicated to The Republican.]" Apparently, ED had not sanctioned publication.