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04 October 2011

Flowers—Well—if anybody

Flowers—Well—if anybody
Can the ecstasy define—
Half a transport—half a trouble—
With which flowers humble men:
Anybody find the fountain
From which floods so contra flow—
I will give him all the Daisies
Which upon the hillside blow.

Too much pathos in their faces
For a simple breast like mine—
Butterflies from St. Domingo
Cruising round the purple line—
Have a system of aesthetics—
Far superior to mine.
                                                                       - F95 (1859)  137

It’s interesting that the poet finds too much intense feeling (“pathos”) “For a simple breast like mine” in daisies when she identifies herself as “Daisy” in other poems, notoriously the Master poems. Perhaps this might illuminate those poems a bit, suggest that the poet / Daisy is under the influence of passion and other strong emotions. Today, daisies typically indicate purity and innocence. I wonder if Dickinson was alone in equating them with passion.
            She is questioning here the root of human response to flowers. Their effect is to create an “ecstasy” that is humbling. Such ecstasy might be akin to rapture or it might suggest the “transport” one gets from contemplation of the extraordinary—or both. But mingling with this transport is an equal measure of “trouble.” She’s not referring, I don’t think, to the labor of gardening, but to the existential dread engendered by coming face to face with the Beautiful. But where, she asks, does such a torrent of contradictory feeling come from? As if she has been mulling the question for quite a while, she begins the poem in a mock exasperated tone: “Flowers – Well – if anybody / Can the ecstasy define – … I will give him all the Daisies / Which upon the hillside blow.” This leads her to think further about daisies. She clearly doesn’t prefer them (at least as indicated in this poem): she is too “simple.”
Butterfly on purple aster
from Viette.com


            She turns, then to the butterflies, perhaps the Monarchs which over the span of three of four generations arrive in New England from distant southerly points in time for spring. They don’t cross the Equator,  and neither is the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo on the other side of the Equator, so I think the “purple line” refers to the daisies themselves—perhaps purple asters. The butterflies, delicate and ephemeral as they are, are able to drink from the daisies without the flood of ambiguous feelings. In fact, they “cruise” while the poet aches.

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