A Thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a Fan —
Upon the slowest Night —
You cannot fold a Flood —
And put it in a Drawer —
Because the Winds would find it out —
And tell your Cedar Floor —
F583 (1863) J530
This is an odd little poem. It's easy to take away the notion that the subject is passion or creativity, yet the images themselves tauntingly resist paraphrase or logical analysis.
First, you can put a fire out. And something burning might well go out on a slow night (whatever that is, precisely), especially if there is nothing to fan the flames. Second, while it is clear that floods can't be folded away in drawers, the reason given is that "the Winds would find it out". Clearly the flood wouldn't stay in the drawer whether or not the winds discovered it and told the floor.
|"DancingFlames" by Oscar|
But while the metaphors defy a logical unpacking, it is easy enough to substitute passion or creativity for both Fire and Flood. I'm going to conflate both qualities into Poetry, for Dickinson's opus has both in abundance. Such poetry ignites the poet, burning within despite any lack of fan or stimulation. Such poetry is like a flood. Poets, like Dickinson herself, might fold the poems away in a drawer, but they will be found out as surely as the flood will spill upon the floor.
I find it easy to read the poem's subject as passionate love. It is hard indeed to put that fire out and it might burn all the stronger on quiet nights. Neither is it easy to keep secret. Despite all efforts, the prying wind will "find it out" and tell.
Dickinson draws on homely, female images for this sketch. It is the homemaker or housekeeper who tends the fire, the women who fold things away in drawers and worry about the floors. The paradox at the heart of the poem is the disparity between the domestic scene and the raw power of fire and flood.
Both stanzas are in standard ballad form. The "f" alliterations in the important words help unify it: fire, fan, fold, flood find, and floor.