Blogging all the poems of Emily Dickinson, by Susan Kornfeld
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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?
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.
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.
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
painting by Paul Hutchinson
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
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?
image is compact and loaded. A lot of bitterness is packed into the last three
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.
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.
last lines, by contrast, almost fly by. “When it plucked me?” is fast as a