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18 June 2011

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!

Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap'st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There's Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower—
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum—
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

                                                                                                            J1,  Fr1 (1850)

This Valentine, written in 1850 to Eldridge Bowdoin, Emily's father's law partner, doesn't have the density and startling quality of her later poems. It is a light-hearted celebration of love and, particularly, mating, written in iambic hexameter--a meter she doesn't use much (if at all) again. I don't find the poem particularly interesting, but I do find the gay playfulness toward love ironic and sad when thinking about her mature and later years. Here she posits the whole world happily paired, except for the "cold and lone" Valentine who could have his choice of "six true and comely maidens"--including herself--"she with curling hair". 

We see icons of nature trotted out here, icons she will return to again and again: the bee and flower, wind and branches, storms walking the seashore. And she anthropomorphizes them here as she does later. We also see a glint of her sense of mortality: "Th worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride..." 

Yet I find myself eager to move on to meatier works.


  1. I couldn't disagree more! I think this is one of the most passionate poems I've ever read! She exalts a sort of divine two-ness of life, and the last 5 lines are a celebration of marriage: seize the one you love, build her a bower, bid the world goodmorrow, and go to glory home! Strong stuff for a young woman of Emily's time!

    1. It is delightful - I shouldn't have downplayed the poem without commenting on its delights. But I find it playful and teasing rather passionate. To be clear, she is teasing her Valentine into going with all of Nature and seizing love and passion. It's there -- it's all around you -- don't hang back!

  2. Elbridge Bowdoin, Edward Dickinson’s junior law partner (1847-1855), was about the same age (mid-20s) as Benjamin Newton, Edward’s intern and ED’s mentor, but Newton was married and Bowdoin was not. Bowdoin, a lifelong bachelor, kept this Valentine poem for 40 years. Given its boldly sensual nature, we know where Emily’s mind was at age 19. However, how many Hallmark Valentine cards have you ever seen with a line like this: “The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride”? ED had more than romantic love on her mind.