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08 July 2011

A brief, but patient illness—

A brief, but patient illness—
An hour to prepare,
And one below this morning
Is where the angels are—
It was a short procession,
The Bobolink was there—
An aged Bee addressed us—
And then we knelt in prayer—
We trust that she was willing—
We ask that we may be.
Let us go with thee!
                                                             - Fr 22 (1858)

* Included as part of J18 (Fr21)

This poem plus the three line doxology of Franklin's number 23 are often considered as one poem. A brief spate of searching did not turn up any answers as to why Franklin presents them as three separate poems. I'm going to have to get the three-volume Variorum edition where all is explained....

     Anyway, I like examining this section on its own without having to work the gentian of Poem 21 in.
   I read this as a brief, light-hearted elegy to summer. She had a brief illness--presumably early fall or late summer when the leaves first start to turn, but then a sudden frost put an end to it. The gardener has only a brief time to go protect the delicate plants. 
     It's unclear to me what 'one below this morning' refers to: temperature? below heaven? below the earth (i.e., in a grave)? At any rate, that's where the angels are hanging. And then we have the very pretty sight of a brief funeral procession. The chattery Bobolink was there, an aged Bee (no longer flitting around, but circumspect and sober as a judge) gave the sermon, and then everyone prayed. 
     Three 'S' words are listed as going where the supplicant wants to go: Summer, sister, and seraph. The summer may be all of those, particularly in a world where aged bees give sermons. In a later poem Dickinson mentions going wherever summer goes, and it does sound inviting to go there with it. 
     The poem is woven more tightly than its casual demeanor might suggest at first. There are several slant rhymes off the word 'prepare' in line two: are, there, prayer; there are numerous internal rhymes--exact and complete--that go off the 'Bee' of line 7: we / we/ she / we / we / be / thee. The effect is similar to the effect of the trebling of Summer as sister and seraph: there are key sounds that begin to resonate. And they don't intrude. The lines have so much content interest that all these rhymes almost go unnoticed.

NOTE: Please read comments below to find an error I made and how that makes me re-think the entire poem. Thank you to  Teri-Sue Thompson


  1. I read the phrase "And one below, this morning is where the angels are --" (supplying the given comma as shown in Franklin's Reading Edition) as one person (or entity) who/that was here on earth, below the heavens, is as of this morning now where the angels are ... in the heavens.

    1. Thank you! That was a very significant little omission on my part -- changes my reading entirely.

  2. Could this be about an illness that was brief but fatal for someone she knew?

    1. I think so. I think my original reading is faulty! Thanks for the comment

  3. See Prowling Bee comments 5 & 6, ‘The Gentian weaves her fringes’, Fr21.