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21 April 2014

The Winters are so short —

The Winters are so short —
I'm hardly justified
In sending all the Birds away —
And moving into Pod —

Myself — for scarcely settled —
The Phoebes have begun —
And then — it's time to strike my Tent —
And open House — again —

It's mostly, interruptions —
My Summer — is despoiled —
Because there was a Winter — once —
And all the Cattle — starved —

And so there was a Deluge —
And swept the World away —
But Ararat's a Legend — now —
And no one credits Noah —
                                           F532 (1863)  J403

Cynthia Griffin Wolff proposes Nature as the speaker of this lighthearted poem (Emily Dickinson, 284-5). After all, it is Nature who causes the birds to migrate and puts the developing seed into pods; Nature who hibernates in her tent until time to have summer "open House – again". 
        One could easily read the poem's speaker as Dickinson herself. Most of the first three stanzas can be plausibly read as from her point of view. This wouldn't be the first time she has placed herself at the hub of the seasons, perhaps most notably in "I dreaded that first Robin, so" (F347) where the creatures and blossoms of spring arrive punctually "in gentle deference" to her and then salute her as they depart. But why would she ramble on here about cattle and floods?
        I'm drawn to Wolff's idea, but would refine the voice as stream of consciousness from an exasperated and rather flighty Mother Earth. Mother gets frustrated with all the "interruptions", with how fast time flies ("What's the sense of sending off birds and tucking myself in for the winter? I just get comfortable and then the Phoebes are back! Now I have to get everything ready again.")  
        She has other complaints, too. Her precious Summer has been "despoiled" because a harsh winter ("Oh, I don't remember when … Once …) killed the cattle. That means no gamboling little calves and no fresh milk. And also, she continues, dredging up old grudges against whatever idiot is in charge of weather, there was that big deluge that drowned the world, that flood where Noah packed all the animals into an ark. "But no one believes that story anymore." I hear the housewife complaining about the husband making her job harder and the lamentable views of the modern world.
        No matter who the speaker is, the liveliness and pertness of the voice add a lot of charm. 

The poem is written in short-meter ballad form: abcb rhyme-scheme quatrains in iambic trimeter – except for the third tetrameter line of each stanza. This is a popular variant of the traditional ballad structure with the reverse trimeter/tetrameter structure: 4-4-3-4 syllables.) The second and fourth lines rhyme. Dickinson often uses slant rhymes and does so here. I particularly like her pairing of "Noah" with "away", which really zings the "w" sound, adding to others in the stanza: was, swept, world, now, one. "Despoiled" and "starved" have little but an "s" and an "ed" in common, but they are probably the strongest words in the poem, both in sense and sound; their uniqueness is not diminished by a closely-rhymed sound.   


  1. I just discovered your blog. I am trying to read one poem a day in Franklin, and am now up to 428. I am mostly mystified by the poems but get enough out of them to keep trying. Your comments have helped me a lot since I discovered you about a week ago. Thank you!

    1. Welcome to the blog and thank you for your kind comments. I'm also mystified, too

  2. I found it curious that her sense of "pod" here was so different from F530, He Gave Away His Life. But then I read the end of the first stanza as the narrator moving into pod, rather than seeds moving into pod as the season changes. Your insightful commentary opened new meaning for me, but I don't like to surrender my initial impression because it conjured for me a tiny narrator (diminutive Mother Nature like Queen Mab) using a seed husk for her winter's tent. Maybe you or other readers see more similarity in the pod imagery/symbolism in these two poems. I would be interested to hear.
    L Silverwood

    1. I agree with you that the narrator is moving into pod for the winter. If Nature (and I like Queen Mab) is the speaker then I think she is speaking metaphorically – who knows what her 'actual' pod might be like. A small flower pod seems more suited to a little fairy than grand dam Nature.

      I did think about the use of pod in F530. It's such a wonderful word and concept that no wonder Dickinson would still want to work with it. In both cases it is a shelter. When the solder emerges, 'perfect', it is to bloom in heaven. For Nature, it is to bring spring and summer to life.

      Going back to the Queen Mab imagery – I wouldn't be surprised if Dickinson didn't have some such droll image in mind.

  3. Stanza 1:

    Lighthearted? Winter in western Massachusetts is anything but short, hence all the Florida “snowbirds”. Except for the very wealthy, New England humans lacked that modern seasonal migration option, but birds did not. As for the “Pod”, before each winter began, ED’s father ordered 50 cords of top quality walnut firewood (to supplement coal?). For four months every winter, ED probably felt like a pea in a pod or a hibernating bear.

  4. Stanza 2:

    “Eastern Phoebes are among the first migrants to return to their breeding grounds in spring—sometimes as early as March.”

    “Scarcely settled”? ED hibernates indoors from November – March, guaranteed cabin fever. Maybe by mid-May the house can be opened for spring cleaning.

    By “strike” does ED mean emerging from hibernation in her bedroom? Getting outdoors for walks is the time for pitching tents, not striking them.

    Both Stanza 1 and 2 begin absurdly. Is that the point?

  5. Stanza 3:

    If mowing machines in the Dickinson hay meadow just across Main Street from Homestead were powered by loud internal combustion engines, I could understand the logic of Stanza 3. Also, ED sometimes complained about interruptions of her summer days by neighbors stopping to chat about her garden, but summer interruptions in 1863 “Because there was a Winter — once — / And all the Cattle — starved —” sure sounds like nonsense to me. Isn’t there a poetry rule somewhere that “Three absurd stanzas in one poem and you’re out”? Methinks ED’s pulling a fast one on us.

    Stanza 4:

    Now we can safely infer that ED’s either lost her marbles or is bored out of her gourd with meaningful messages. A majority of Christians in 1863 accepted the story of Noah and the flood as the gospel truth, and ED knew it. This entire poem is the equivalent of today’s (11/10/2023) nuthouse in Washington, DC. I guess that’s funny.

  6. Your comment is very helpful, thank you! Could you tell me the title of Cynthia Griffin Wolff's book?