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24 June 2011

If recollecting were forgetting,

If recollecting were forgetting,
Then I remember not.
And if forgetting, recollecting,
How near I had forgot.
And if to miss, were merry,
And to mourn, were gay,
How very blithe the fingers
That gathered this, Today! 
                                                          - F 9 (1858)

Emily has again enclosed flowers in a letter to Samuel Bowles. She tells him in this bit of verse that she misses him and is sad. She employs lots of word play, employing opposites to make her point. Except, well, it doesn't quite hang together in parts, at least the way I parse it:
- recollecting = forgetting: since she "remember[s] not" (forgot, in other words), that means she actually remembered. 
- forgetting = remembering: since she almost forgot, that means she actually almost remembered.
Perhaps the point was that she did remember him but, alas, came close to forgetting. 
I suspect this is a private communication that only the two of them would understand. There might have been some banter between them earlier about remembering and forgetting. There is also the insight that both forgetting and remembering imply their opposite. For how can one remember if there weren't a point at which that which was remembered was out of mind? And forgetting--and nearly remembering--also suggest the knowledge that is to be forgotten. 
     But those first four lines really only serve to set up the main point which is in the last four. Here there is a clear ironic equation:
  - miss = merry
  - mourn = gay
If that were truly the case, then the sadness the poet felt in missing the recipient as she picked the flowers would be cheerfulness. 
     The rest of the poem is easier; the rhyme and meter are even easier. The heart of this passage is conveyed alliteratively: miss, merry, morn; gay, gathered. The entire poem has a singsong quality that gives it a light-hearted quality. Clearly she believes the flowers will be well received.


  1. I'll bet that the flowers were forget me nots.

    1. Of course! (head slap) It never occurred to me until you said so! Thanks -

  2. ED first met Samuel Bowles when he stayed at Evergreens while writing a story for his newspaper about a mowing contest between mowing machines. The contest occurred June 30, 1858, in North Amherst. Bowles visited Evergreens again in late 1858 accompanied by his wife, Mary, whom ED befriended (Habegger. 2001.My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, p. 426 & 429, Kindle Edition.)

    Bowles must have visited again in March 1859 because ED wrote him in early April, (L205):

    “I did not see you. I am very sorry. Shall I keep the Wine till you come again …..? It is now behind the door in the Library, also an unclaimed flower. I did not know you were going so soon - Oh my tardy feet!”

    Perhaps she included a flower and her poem ‘If recollecting were forgetting’ (F9) with this letter.