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.