I could have touched!
I might have chanced that way!
Soft sauntered thro' the village—
Sauntered as soft away!
So unsuspected Violets
Within the meadows go—
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago!
- F 69 (1859)
This refrain of just having missed something reminds me of countless fishing and mushrooming trips where someone invariably pipes up, “You should have been here yesterday!” In this case the poet recounts how she might have walked through the village into the meadow and found the ephemeral Violets. However, she didn’t chance that way.
Dickinson might have been talking about one of her favourite flowers, the violet, or else the Violet-tip butterfly (polygonia interrogationis), The latter has a surge of lovely lavender across its back wings in the summer. It is even more ephemeral than the flower because it flits around and can blend unseen in the shrubs and nettles it enjoys. In fact, I’m going to argue for the butterfly as the subject for the following reasons: first, they ‘go’ in the meadows, something that flowers, which can only sit, do not; second, the fingers are ‘striving’—and although you might have to strive to find a wild violet, your fingers wouldn’t have to strive to pick it.
But it’s not a particularly important point for this poem. Rather, Dickinson is talking about chance and choice. We often lose a chance for something because of small choices we make.
The first five lines speak of something the poet would have wanted, something in town, but nothing heavy or else she couldn’t have ‘Sauntered as soft away’ as she had come. The last four lines compare this to Violet hunting: you have to be there at just the right time. Timing accounts for quite a bit in the scheme of this poem. Dickinson would certainly have encountered the idea in her Shakespeare readings, particularly in Lear and Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Dickinson avoids the martial and heroic imagery of Shakespeare with the remarkably homely analogy of village walks and Violet hunting. She may also be talking (again) about the meaning of life and death. As in F 67 where the poet arrives at the deathbed too late, so here the poet misses the the passing of a soul, an ‘unsuspected Violet’ that has gone into the meadow. But in this case she has been too early as the ‘striving fingers’ were there ‘an hour ago’.