Unto the Daisy low —
Transported with Compassion
That such a Doll should grow
Where Tent by Tent — Her Universe
Hung out its Flags of Snow —
F460 (1862) J481
This little poem has the same teasing tone as the previous one – and was written on the same piece of paper. Perhaps some particular loved one said or did something that sparked a little flash. Just to get biographical, I’d venture that the poems were directed towards Samuel Bowles, a man many scholars believe Dickinson loved and who may have been the “Master” to whom she wrote several passionate letters (though they were probably not delivered). Bowles was an editor of the influential and prestigious Springfield Republican newspaper. Dickinson sent him numerous poems but he was not encouraging. Although that paper published seven of Dickinson’s poems, none of them are among the ones she sent Bowles directly. Consequently, we don’t know if he had a hand in publishing them or not.
Dickinson writes this poem as if telling a fable: Once upon a time there was a great mountain. Yet despite its size and grandeur it took an interest in a small daisy growing at its feet. The mountain was filled with love and concern for this little flower that lived amid the snowfields hanging out its own “Flags of Snow.”
Of interest here are Dickinson’s diction and what the poet is getting at with “Flags of Snow.” I find the phrase wonderfully rich and ambiguous. The daisy’s “Universe” far below the mountaintop is growing “Tent by Tent” as if it were a travelling show setting up. Indeed, daisies would need to ‘travel’ in the Himalayas, coming out only in the brief spring and summer season before disappearing. The flags of snow would, in this context, be the flags that fly from the top of the tents – and the spreading patches of white flowers.
But Dickinson clearly has other meanings in mind. We’ve seen in “Doubt Me! My Dim Companion!” Dickinson’s use of “snow” to suggest purity and virginity (F332):
Sift her, from Brow to Barefoot!
Strain till your last Surmise—
Drop, like a Tapestry, away,
Before the Fire's Eyes—
Winnow her finest fondness—
But hallow just the snow
Intact, in Everlasting flake—
Oh, Caviler, for you!
In the same vein, Dickinson included the following lines to an 1861 letter to Samuel Bowles (along with a poem, “Through the Straight Pass of Suffering” F187):
If you doubted my Snow _ for a moment _ you never will _ again _ I know _ Because I could not say it _ I fixed it in the Verse _ for you to read _ when your thought wavers, for such a foot as mine _
“Snow” in both snippets suggests purity. She had taken a moral stance against becoming a public, published poet just as a woman of her day might take a moral stance towards virginity. Dickinson also used “snow” to represent pages of poetry. And so “Flags of Snow” represents, in addition to the visual representation of daisy fields spreading in the spring, Dickinson’s growing “Universe” of poetry, growing poem by poem. No wonder the mighty mountain is fascinated.
As to the diction: two words burn an edge of bitterness into this otherwise playful poem: “stoop” and “Doll.” Dickinson having the mountain stoop rather than peer or bend suggests pride or even arrogance. While “Daisy” is a nickname Dickinson commonly uses for herself, “Doll” is not. The suggestion that Daisy is a Doll in the mountain’s eyes is not false modesty on the part of the poet but a cutting observation of how she believes Bowles (or whomever) regards her. She is an interesting little figure that must be tended to – like a beloved plaything writing poetry.
Notice, though, that the Daisy has a “Universe” that is growing, that we read in the daisy a lot of fortitude as well as purity. It raises the question of which is the more impressive after all: the mountain or the daisy. This is the question Dickinson raised in an earlier poem:
In lands I never saw—they say
Immortal Alps look down—
Whose Bonnets touch the firmament—
Whose Sandals touch the town—
Meek at whose everlasting feet
A Myriad Daisy play—
Which, Sir, are you and which am I
Upon an August day?
There is a lot of nuance in this short poem – as well as a lot of room for interpretation.