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09 August 2011

It did not surprise me —

It did not surprise me—
So I said—or thought—
She will stir her pinions
And the nest forgot,

Traverse broader forests—
Build in gayer boughs,
Breathe in Ear more modern
God's old fashioned vows—

This was but a Birdling—
What and if it be
One within my bosom
Had departed me?

This was but a story—
What and if indeed
There were just such coffin
In the heart instead?
                                                               - F 50 (1859)
Birdlings stretch their wings and fly to find a new home; comparing this process to young people 'leaving the nest' is a common metaphor. Dickinson begins the poem by applying this philosophic resignation to a friend or perhaps young relative leaving quiet Amherst for a 'gayer' more 'modern' place. Interestingly, she posits exposure to new-fangled ideas versus 'old fashioned' Biblical teachings as breathing in 'Ear'--as if listening were breathing, taking in sound akin to taking in breath.
     Dickinson returns to that idea in her 1862 poem (F 340) "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." Here, as the poet begins to swoon or otherwise break down, she hears "Boots of Lead" treading through her brain, and "then Space – began to toll, / As all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear,". In both poems the Ear becomes the primary organ. In F 50, it is the filter through which life is understood. The modern Ear would hear God's vows quite differently than would Puritan-influenced Amherst. In F340, the Ear is the only sensory organ and all it hears are the tolling of the Heavens. The conceit gives new meaning to the religious notion of the Received Word.
     The poem continues to say, 'Well, so Birdlings will go their own ways and forget the nest, but what if this Birdling were among my beloved? What then? The poet doesn't answer directly but in the penultimate line substitutes the word 'coffin' for the earlier 'nest'. Would the poet want to confine a beloved in the 'coffin' of the heart? It is tempting to think that the coffin would hold the heart, which would presumably be broken when the beloved bird had flown away, but Dickinson carefully writes of the coffin "in" the heart rather than "of" the heart. It would be burying the Birdling alive, entombed in confining love. 

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