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20 June 2011

One Sister have I in our house,

This poem comes from a letter to sister-in-law and beloved friend, Sue, on her 28th birthday.

One Sister have I in our house,
And one, a hedge away.
There's only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

One came the road that I came --

And wore my last year's gown --
The other, as a bird her nest,
Builded our hearts among.

She did not sing as we did --

It was a different tune --
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June.

Today is far from Childhood --

But up and down the hills
I held her hand the tighter --
Which shortened all the miles --

And still her hum

The years among,
Deceives the Butterfly;
Still in her Eye
The Violets lie
Mouldered this many May.

I spilt the dew --

But took the morn --
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers --
Sue - forevermore!
                                                                       J14,  Fr 5 (1858)

While Emily Dickinson's sister Vinnie came from the same mother as Emily and, like many younger sisters wore her older sister's hand-me-downs, in this poem Emily claims her friend and sister-in-law Sue Dickinson as a full sister, too. As teenagers the two young women wrote passionate letters to each other and initiated a literary friendship that would bind them through even the most difficult emotional patches of their relationship. It was Sue who prepared Emily for burial, chose the flowers for her hair and hands, and composed a truly perceptive and radiant obituary

        As Emily sees it, when Sue entered the Dickinson lives she built a nest in their hearts. She was different, had had an entirely different upbringing, had been orphaned, had traveled, and had an exotic appeal that Emily refers to in several poems, most particularly "Your Riches – taught me – Poverty" (F418). There was trouble ahead for them, for sure. But at least in this poem the lovely Sue is still nesting in their hearts.
        One can argue, however, that the strain of Dickinson having 'lost' her beloved best friend to her brother lies beneath the lines, but even if so, Dickinson is clearly praising the sister that lives just 'a hedge away' in Evergreens – the gracious home the Dickinson father built for Austin and Sue. The fifth stanza praises Sue's enduring youthful beauty. Violets last only a season – except for those in Sue's eyes. Her violets are still there.
        And yet this stanza with its talk of 'deceit' may be hinting at more than youthful beauty that confounds nature. Sue "hum[s]" amid the family, drawing the Butterfly, Emily, close with tempting nectar. Scholars have argued the extent and nature of the early affection between the two girls, and the violets that "Mouldered" in Sue's eyes may be a discreet reference to that. "Smoldered", a word associated with passion, is an easy ear and eye substitution for moldered. The butterfly, hoping for live, smoldering violets, finds only the decaying remnants.  
Sue Dickinson

        Nonetheless, in the last stanza Dickinson seems to take the long view: while she 'spilt the dew' and perhaps let a beautiful dewdrop slip through her fingers, she 'took the morn'--kept a more mature and longer relationship. And Sue is a 'star' --one in a million.
        The poem is written primarily in iambic trimeter with the second and fourth line of each quatrain rhyming--or at least featuring a slant rhyme. Dickinson is justifiably known for her slant rhymes, which weren't so common when she was writing as they were to become. Enjoy: away / me; gown / among ; hills / miles; star / forevermore.
        Also note that the fifth stanza, the looking-back one, has six lines, four of them in dimeter. The dimeter allows her to bring the rhymes closer together: "And in her Eye / The violets lie", for example has the feel of a popular song, particularly when followed by the alliterations in the following line of Mouldered / many / and May. The next stanza also begins with dimeter, thus ending the poem as more a love song than a formal poem.


  1. Dickinson's brother's name was Austin. Edward was her father.

    1. Yes -- quite mortifying lapse. I've changed it. thanks!

  2. Sentence 1, paragraph 3, rings true:

    I spilt the dew -- Lost the battle with Austin, July 1, 1856
    But took the morn -- But won the war for Susan, forevermore

  3. Substitution of 'smolder' for 'moulder', an epiphany for me, means the last sentence of paragraph 3 should logically read: "The butterfly (ED), hoping for live, smoldering violets, finds [them "this many May"].

  4. Franklin numbers 1781 poems as ED’s lifetime productivity. There is one poem each of the years 1850, 1852, 1853, 1854, then zero poems in 1855, 1856, and 1857. Suddenly, in 1858, ED exploded with 44 poems and 80 more in 1859. Her productivity continued upward for several more years then gradually declined during the remainder of her life. Clearly, something enormous happened in ED’s life during 1854 - 1858.

    I asked Louise, my poet wife, what might explain such a surge in a poet’s productivity after 3 years of zero poems. She said, wisely, “During the lull a poet might be happy and feel little motivation to write or be depressed and unable to focus or somewhere in between. Then something happens to jumpstart the poetry engine.” I thanked her as politely as I could and returned to cogitating.

  5. "The sheets of this [poem] were whole when Mrs. Todd copied them, about 1889, but were mutilated sometime between then and 1891, presumably by Austin or Lavinia Dickinson, Emily's brother and sister. The intent was to destroy 'One Sister have I in the house', a laudatory poem about Sue, Austin's wife. To do so, the mutilator cut out two leaves from the packet and, dividing them into a number of pieces, canceled 'One Sister have I in the house' wherever it appeared on them" (Franklin, R.W. 1978. Three Additional Dickinson Manuscripts).

    Franklin's word "canceled" means mutilated with heavy scribbles, making the lines unreadable.