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19 June 2011

I have a Bird in spring

from a letter to Sue, about 1854 (before Sue married Emily's brother Austin)

We have walked very pleasantly - Perhaps this is the point at which our paths diverge - then pass on singing Sue, and up the distant hill I journey on.

I have a Bird in spring 
Which for myself doth sing -- 
The spring decoys. 
And as the summer nears -- 
And as the Rose appears, 
Robin is gone. 

Yet do I not repine 
Knowing that Bird of mine 
Though flown -- 
Learneth beyond the sea 
Melody new for me 
And will return. 

Fast in a safer hand 
Held in a truer Land 
Are mine -- 
And though they now depart  
Tell I my doubting heart 
They're thine. 

In a serener Bright, 
In a more golden light 
I see 
Each little doubt and fear  
Each little discord here 

Then will I not repine, 
Knowing that Bird of mine 
Though flown 
Shall in a distant tree 
Bright melody for me 
                                                         J5,  Fr4 (1854)

          The letter to Emily's beloved Sue which includes this poem is wrenching. It begins, "Sue--you can go or stay -- There is but one alternative -- we differ often lately and this must be the last. The letter continues in this bitter vein but then ends with this poem that, to me, begins in pain but ends in a state of spiritual gain. Already by this time Dickinson had begun staying very close to home and so her few friends were very important to her. Sue's engagement to Austin was probablyan emotional blow, but not one that Emily couldn't surmount.
          As the poem begins we see her missing the robin of spring--a decoy from the more mature summer of the rose. In the second and third stanzas she philosophically acknowledges that her bird is not lost, but merely 'beyond the sea' learning a new melody before it returns. In fact, the bird (now "they"--perhaps referring to both Sue and Austin?) is better off--in God's hands. This acceptance leads to a crucial difference in the otherwise reprise final stanza. Here the poet is more forceful: instead of "yet do I not repine" she says "Then will I not repine", effectively transforming a philosophical resignation into a desired state.
          Key to this is the fourth stanza--transcendent with its "serener Bright" and "golden light" that remove discord and doubt. Dickinson moves here from the particular--her loss of Robin / loved friend--to a generalized state of grace. In this state she is able to appreciate the song of a bird even in a 'distant tree.' There's a lot going on poetically. The first two stanzas alternate pairs of iambic and trochaic trimeter with a line of iambic dimeter. But in the third through fifth stanzas she substitutes monometer for
the dimeter. The lines are interesting and impactful in themselves:
    - Are mine
    - They're thine.
    - I see
    - Removed
    - Though flown
    - Return
The monometer echoes poetically the fusion of two into one that Dickinson alluded to in her playful Valentine (F 1).  One thing I particularly like about the poem are the really lovely echoes in the parallel lines:
   - And as the summer nears-- / And as the Rose appears
   - Fast in a safer hand / Held in a truer Land
   - In a serener Bright, / In a more golden light
   - Each little doubt and fear, / Each little discord here
Each pair of parallel lines is then followed by a dimeter or monometer line setting up almost a reading and response pattern. The only stanzas that do not have the parallel lines are the two reprise stanzas about the flown bird.
            I can read this poem as a meditation on spiritual maturity reflecting on the temptations , sorrows, and delights of spring; or I can read it as coming to a deeper, less possessive understanding of friendship.


  1. I am always reminded of the adage, "if you love something let it go." :)

  2. ED has faith that Susan will return, and she did.

  3. After a long war with significant casualties.


  4. As Susan K says, ED must have been in a lot of pain when she sent this letter and poem, about September 1854, to Susan D. She tried, unsuccessfully, in the letter preceding the poem to rationally accept the loss of the love of her life as “a bubble burst”:

    “I often part with things I fancy I have loved, - sometimes to the grave, and sometimes to an oblivion rather bitterer than death - thus my heart bleeds so frequently that I shant mind the hemorrhage, and I can only add an agony to several previous ones, and at the end of day remark - a bubble burst!”

    ED’s pain was so deep that, contrary to her usual careful editing, in her letter to Susan she repeats Stanza 2 in a slightly altered Stanza 5. In November 1854, in a letter to her good friend Elizabeth Holland, she used a further slightly altered Stanza 2 to close her letter:

    “Then will I not repine,
    knowing that bird of mine,
    though flown -
    learneth beyond the sea,
    melody new for me,
    and will return.

    I suspect that ED intended to omit Stanza 2 in her letter and use the Holland variant to end her now-four-stanza poem ‘I have a little bird in spring’, but in her grief she forgot to edit the letter before sending.