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11 July 2011

Distrustful of the Gentian—

Distrustful of the Gentian—
And just to turn away,
The fluttering of her fringes
Chid my perfidy—
Weary for my_______
I will singing go—
I shall not feel the sleet—then—
I shall not fear the snow.

Flees so the phantom meadow
Before the breathless Bee –
So bubble brooks in deserts
On Ears that dying lie – 
Burn so the Evening Spires
To Eyes that Closing go – 
Hangs so distant Heaven – 
To a hand below.
                                                                    J20,  Fr 26 (1858)

• Franklin divides this poem into two at the stanza break, the second listed and discussed separately here as Fr27.

The blank spot in line five takes the place of a name, probably her dear friend and sister-in-law Sue Dickinson whom Emily Dickinson called Suzie. "Suzie" makes a nice starting point for the alliterations in the following three lines: singing, sleet, and snow. I've read here and there that Emily was an exhausting friend, and that Sue sometimes needed space. 
     If we take all of the above into account, we read the poem as an account of friendship on one level and then of acceptance on a larger scale or deeper level. Thinking of the Gentian as her friend Sue, we are introduced immediately to the idea that Dickinson doesn't completely trust her and has turned away. The fluttering fringes evoke the teasing batting of eyelashes – Sue isn't angry, she chides Emily with a mild look for her seeming change of heart. But then Emily wearies of staying apart from her friend and decides to go back with a song in her heart. She'll need the song because she takes it for a given that there will be sleet and there will be snow. That doesn't sound like complete trust to me, but a learned reverend once told me that faith is acting as if you believe something is true even if you don't. So Emily wants to resume the friendship and knows she needs to present a song rather than distrust.
     Read another way, the poem is a siren song with the last fall flowers, the Gentian, beckoning to the forest wanderer to stay and linger in the autumnal woods. The fluttering fringed gentian seems to chide the wanderer's abandonment. Winter is close by and the cold weather will harm not only the delicate flower but the human who remains by its side. Then comes the numbing cold. We see this numbing cold, famously, in her poem "After great pain a formal feeling comes," which ends: 
        As freezing persons recollect the snow--
        First chill, then stupor, then the letting go. 
It is truly an act of faith to stay with the beckoning flower, or perhaps Dickinson is not unwilling to contemplate 'the letting go'. Extrapolating further, we read into the poem that at some point, one must be willing to commit to a small hope or object of desire, no matter the snow.  


  1. ED is “Distrustful of the Gentian” because she feels that SD is an irresistible siren (see Comment 9, Fr17, It's all I have to bring today) who, in the past, hurt ED's feelings and ED responded with anger (Comments 3/27&31/2022, Fr12, I had a guinea golden). ED apologized convincingly (Fr17), but she still feels distrustful. Nevertheless, SD flutters her fringes and ED misses her so much that she will go bravely singing back to SD, enduring any emotional sleet and snow. Of course, this is just one side of the story.

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  2. After much recollecting, I toss my dice again on an interpretation of Franklin’s F26, F27, and F28 as a single poem, which may seem unlikely to most readers. ED copied all three poems/stanzas without intervening division lines for the last manuscript page of Fascicle 1.

    All publications until Franklin’s have combined Stanzas 1 and 2 into a single poem. No one has ever combined Stanzas 1, 2, and 3 into one poem, but that is what seems ED’s most likely intention, at least for me. For Stanza 3, ED, a fan of Tennyson, channels in her enigmatic way, now famous lines from his 1850 ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.” Here’s my interpretation in three paragraphs:

    Distrustful of the Gentian

    I’m distrustful of Susan because she has hurt me in the past, and just as I try to turn away from her, she coyly bats her eyelashes to scold me for my attempt to distant myself from her. I miss Susan, but will try to sing and not feel her ice nor fear her coldness toward me.

    Susan flees me like a mirage when I try to get close. The sound of her voice is music to my dying ears; her image burns like steeples at sunset as I go to sleep, and she feels as far away as heaven, beyond my reach

    We can only lose a lover whom we have won; tis better to have loved Susan and lost her than never to have loved her at all.