I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I'm accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though—
I thought If I could only live
Till that first Shout got by—
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me—
I dared not meet the Daffodils—
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own—
I wished the Grass would hurry—
So when 'twas time to see—
He'd be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me—
I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they'd stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?
They're here, though; not a creature failed—
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me—
The Queen of Calvary—
Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums –
F347 (1862) 348
Dickinson used robins as a synonym for spring in various poems in previous years. She sometimes calls them her troubadors. Here she says, ironically, that she dreads the first robin. She doesn’t want to see the yellow daffodils or hear the bees. She doesn’t want to see spring blossoms, either. She wishes, instead, that the grass would hurry up and grow tall enough to hide the flowers. Talk about depression! Her emotional state seems beyond depression, however. Birdsong in the woods might “mangle” her. The cheery yellow gowns of the daffodils would “pierce” her. She is in real physical danger from what would normally delight her.
She also refers to herself as “Queen of Calvary”—the queen of suffering and sacrifice. She has taken such a title before: In “Title divine, is mine” she is the “Empress of Calvary” who suffers because her love and passion will not be consummated during her earthly life.
In this poem, though, the speaker’s suffering seems to stem from a more existential angst. Spring is no longer a joyful rebirth, a symbol of Resurrection or life after death. Instead it is a reminder of death. The first robin comes, but he may not be last season’s robin. For all the joy of spring there is the cold death of winter. And so as spring parades past her—robins, daffodils, bees, and blossoms—the poet waves her “childish Plumes” at them “in bereaved acknowledgment” of the cycle of life and death. It’s a march here, rather than a dance. Spring “salutes” her as they keep in time to the “unthinking” drums of time.
Dickinson’s plumes would be a bunch of ostrich feathers. These were sometimes worn as ornaments and symbol of wealth or rank, but they were also carried as a sign of grief in funerals. The parade of spring becomes a funeral procession.
For all its depression, however, I sense a tender love. The spring garden and its creatures hurts because the poet, no longer a child, realizes that the new life is ephemeral. It is a very personal relationship. The creatures present themselves to her much as in Eden the first animals presented themselves to Adam to be named. Adam didn’t have the knowledge of death. That came only with the Fall. Dickinson is living in a Fallen world and so sees death behind the bright new façade of spring life.
The poem is written in ballad or hymn form: quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Dickinson is quite regular in her meter in this poem, in keeping with the sense of a march or procession. The slant rhyme pair in the last quatrain of “Plumes” and “Drums” is particularly poignant. We are left with the sense of the Circle of Death rather than the Circle of Life.