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12 February 2012

If it had no pencil,


If it had no pencil,
Would it try mine –
Worn – now – and dull – sweet,
Writing much to thee.
If it had no word –
Would it make the Daisy,
Most as big as I was,
When it plucked me?
                                                            - F184 (1861)   921

Dickinson sent this short poem to Bowles, pinned around a pencil stub, while he was visiting her brother Austin and his wife, her beloved Sue. Look at how I’ve worn my pencil down, she is saying, writing so many letters to you. And you don’t answer! Maybe you don’t have your own pencil – so here, use mine.
            There is the poignant juxtaposition of the adjectives “dull” (italicized for emphasis) and “sweet”: the poet has grown dull through care and long hours spent bent over her desk. She is also dulled internally – no spark of wit or romance has come her way. It is a vicious circle – becoming dulled and consequently dull. Yet there is a sweetness involved. The pencil, carrying the freight of so many sweet thoughts has become sweet itself. Dickinson also, as noted in earlier poems, sees what one critic has called “yoked opposites”; in this case, the sweetness in the pain of neglect.
            According to Judith Farr in The Passion of Emily Dickinson, Dickinson “is a daisy in her letters to [Samuel] Bowles and the poems to Master.” Here she is Daisy and she writes oddly of “it” rather than “he” or “you.” This pattern, according to Richard Sewall, is also seen in the third of the mysterious Master letters. These several letters are full of passion, and although no one knows for sure who “Master” is, several prominent (though not all) speculate that it was Bowles.
painting by Paul Hutchinson
            And so there is a bit of a knife twist at the end of the poem. If Bowles, despite the gift of the pencil stub, is still unable or unwilling to write, “If it had no word,” then perhaps it could draw a picture. This is where the shy and vulnerable Daisy comes in to play. Would you at least draw a Daisy, the poet asks. And, oh, would you draw it almost “as big as I was, / When [you] plucked me?”  
            Ouch! That “plucked” is a sexually-loaded term. Even if there was no physical consummation involved, certainly the man pulled the little flower from her stem and removed it. The implication, further, is that the daisy has since shrunk. It is no longer as big as it was. Could the recipient of the pencil stub (talk about sexually-loaded symbols!) at least draw the daisy back to size?
            The image is compact and loaded. A lot of bitterness is packed into the last three short lines.
            Structurally, the poem is in two stanzas, although there is not stanza break. The first makes only the most half-hearted attempt at rhyme, instead concentrating on vocal emphasis. The second and third lines have three spondees out of five feet total: try mine; Worn – now;  dull – sweet. This forces the reader to slow, especially over the dull / sweet juxtaposition. The effect is to emphasize the pathos of the lonely writer. This serves to soften the recipient up for the bitter twist at the end.
            Dickinson employs other techniques to slow the poem down. Use of “w”s lengthen words (Would, Worn, Writing, word, Would) as does the use of long vowels (try, mine, sweet, Writing, thee Daisy, I, me). It would be very difficult to say or even read the second through fourth lines quickly. We feel the long days go by as the pencil gets worn down with writing letters that are never answered.
            The last lines, by contrast, almost fly by. “When it plucked me?” is fast as a knife jab. 

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