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03 May 2014

How many Flowers fail in Wood —

How many Flowers fail in Wood —
Or perish from the Hill —
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful —

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze —
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight —
It bear to other eyes —
                                F534 (1863)  J404

In this sentimental poem, Dickinson reflects on how unaware of their own worth people can be. Some like flowers bloom and perish in the quiet backwaters of Wood and Hill. Did they really not know whether or not they were "Beautiful"? Dickinson wonders if they had "the privilege to know", and in the usage of her day "privilege" here would probably mean the opportunity or chance to know. 
        I doubt that Dickinson is referring to physical beauty. That's one sort of self knowledge we gain early, unless we are raised in a hermitage. Inner beauty, however, almost by definition is only seen by discerning others. Perhaps Dickinson is imagining a small village with a beautiful soul or two but without anyone who might convince them of that – or perhaps would even notice.
        The second metaphor for unseen worth is that of a flower pod carried by a breeze to disseminate its seeds. This is clearly a reference to all the good things – the seeds –  planted by simple words and gestures, an act of kindness, years of careful devotion and attention – all the actions that are ultimately nurturing and generative. It is a very feminine image. A good soul casts such pods throughout life without even realizing the effect they have on others. 
        Because Dickinson specifies the effect of the pods on others as "Scarlet Freight" born to the eyes, it may be that she is (also) talking about poetry. Poems are visual, most times. That Dickinson considers they deliver some heavy freight has been discussed in earlier discussions here and quite extensively elsewhere. I think it likely that the brilliant red maple achene, the samara, is the pod she is visualizing. It's a lovely image: the graceful maple tree dispersing its winged seeds in the breeze. Granted the achenes are not pods, but "Pod" is just such a fine word, I would never quibble with it. (A commenter mentioned a couple of uses of "pod" in recent poems – and here is a third.)

Dickinson touches on a similar theme in "Except to Heaven, she is nought" (F173). In that poem she writes of a small flower that is not valued by any except Heaven and the tiny creatures who benefit from it. I read that poem as a metaphor for a woman, perhaps Dickinson herself. Except to the bees, butterflies and breezes who recognize her beauty and importance, the little flower is "superfluous" and "provincial"; as a result, she is "lone" and "unnoticed".  
        I don't find the tone in either that poem or this one to be anything but sweetly, wistfully sentimental. There are quiet souls to be appreciated, perhaps in contrast to men like the poet's opinionated father and brother or the well-traveled and lionized men that were her favored correspondents. These men certainly were aware of their "beauty" and the impact of their pods. But doesn't it sound odd to phrase it like that? Our thoughts turn immediately to the housewives who die sad, quiet, early deaths in other Dickinson poems.


  1. This poem was written after the poet’s famous letter to Higginson seeking validation of her poetry (“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” L260). So for me the central metaphor, of flowers and the pods they release, represents her poetry. It is as though she was not yet certain that her work would attain immortality. Further, by this time she had been published anonymously, sometimes without her knowledge. So the extension of the pod image to “a nameless pod” cast into the wind of publication follows nicely as does "scarlet freight," for the revelation the reader takes from a literary work.
    I have read that Dickinson often enclosed poems with flowers and gifts that she sent to friends with notes that made reference to the poems as flowers. In The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, Judith Farr cites numerous times in which Dickinson spoke of the written word as a flower, and also numerous examples of Dickinson’s writing in which flowers represent the poet herself. I happen to be enjoying this book now, my only disappointment is that the author did not include a diagram of the Dickinson property to give the reader a blueprint of the gardens, the conservatory, and the two houses.
    Perhaps Dickinson had realized before this poem that her oeuvre was worthy of immortality, but would time and happenstance lead to recognition for herself or others who wrote privately? She must have had these thoughts, just as the narrator wonders.
    The flower imagery in Dickinson poetry is so varied and so rich, one could go on and on. This aspect of her writing is not surprising since her life was also dedicated to gardening and the cultivation of remarkable flowers in her conservatory.
    Lee Silverwood

    1. Thank you, Lee, for the good insights. I have Farr's "The Passion of Emily Dickinson, and like it very much. I've been tempted by the Gardens book, so maybe I'll get it, too.

  2. is there any opposition in either diction or syntax and is there any parallel patterns

    1. Google those words and then study the poem -- and report back -- it would be interesting!

    2. really? i thought you knew

    3. Apposition? Opposition doesn’t make sense to me in this context but then I am no scholar!

  3. Susan K mentions two interpretations of “nameless Pod”, first, a seed such as a samara of red maple, Acer rubrum, and second, a poem cast “Upon the nearest Breeze”. Maybe ED intended both.

    Daneen Wardrop suggests a third meaning of “a nameless pod” of “Scarlet Freight”: a miscarried or aborted fetus. Mabel Todd wrote in her diary that Susan Gilbert Dickinson had five abortions during her marriage to Austin. Brutal as the third meaning may seem, abortions were openly advertised in mid-nineteenth century publications under such terms as "'ladies' relief' or promises to 'cure irregularities'. While we may not recognize in these euphemisms offers of medicines to induce abortion, nineteenth-century women would have.”,second%20asks%20about%20the%20mother.

    Did ED intentionally compose this poem with three levels of meaning?


    1. This seems so clear now that you present it. Certainly the poem supports the reading.

  4. Variant A, which ED sent to her Norcross cousins “about 1863” (Franklin), is now lost, except for Line 1: “How many Flowers fail in the Wood —". ED omitted the “the” in Variant B (Fascicle 28-10).

    If ED did intend all three levels of meaning and knew her cousins would understand all three, these three women (ED, Louisa age 21, and Francis age 16) were intimate, well-informed friends.

    Frances (1847-1896) [age 16 in 1863] and Louisa (1842-1919) [age 21 in 1863] Norcross, cousins.

    ( )