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28 July 2011

I haven't told my garden yet—

haven't told my garden yet—
Lest that should conquer me.
I haven't quite the strength now
To break it to the Bee—

I will not name it in the street
For shops would stare at me—
That one so shy—so ignorant
Should have the face to die.

The hillsides must not know it—
Where I have rambled so—
Nor tell the loving forests
The day that I shall go—

Nor lisp it at the table—
Nor heedless by the way
Hint that within the Riddle
One will walk today—
                                                                 - F 40 (1858)

The question Dickinson poses here is a familiar one: if you knew you were going to die would you tell anyone or keep it to yourself? Her answer is 'no'-- she will walk through that Riddle, that passageway from this world to the next without a hint to anyone.
     In the first quatrain the poet reasons that it would be too hard on her to confess to the garden and the Bee (which often stands for Nature's god, pollinating and watching over everything). Dickinson was known more for her garden than for her poetry while she lived, and her time in it was precious. In letters and other poems she says she says that earth is 'so like to heaven, that I would hesitate, should the true one call away' (L 85). Announcing her departure to the garden would weaken her resolve. She would have to 'break it to the Bee', so she anticipates that it would be hard on the garden and its denizens as well.
     Next she considers telling her news in town, but is too inhibited. She is known for being shy, even ignorant, yet here she is about to take the ultimate journey. While others fear death, why should one shy woman have 'the face' for it? True to her reputation, she is too shy to mention it.
     She even resists giving her news farther afield, beyond town and garden. The forests are 'loving' and would perhaps be sad. The hillsides might miss her rambling. And finally, she doesn't want to tell her loved ones or even a stranger.
     The poem is almost a heroic fantasy: the shy poet, ready to face the unknown country beyond death, keeping this greatest secret all to herself. We see her connection with nature--it knows her and will miss her--and she it. No people are named: not father or brother or beloved sister-in-law Sue. She merely dismisses them as being 'at the table'. She doesn't mention a traveler or neighbor, but alludes to them by saying she would not 'lisp' or whisper it 'by the way'. Her eyes go from garden to Bee to shops, to hillsides and forests, to table and 'way'.

Except for the first tetrameter line, the poem is written in iambic trimeter which gives the poem its light, sing-song-y quality. The center of the poem, the last word of the second quatrain is 'die' and the word lands there  like a stone, suddenly introducing an irony between the subject matter and the tone of the verse. 


  1. I find it very comforting that she talks so freely of death. Perhaps during her time it was not such a taboo as it is today. It is one of the things I like about her and her love of nature and gardening. Keep it coming. I enjoy your blog which is helping me understand ED on a greater level.

  2. Except for the last two lines, the poem seems accessible and morbid. Why is a 28-year-old woman obsessing about impending death? Is she thinking about the deaths of close friends or is she suicidal, or both? Perhaps the last two lines give a clue: "[Nor] Hint that within the Riddle, One will walk today." Is she is saying, in her own way, what the Venerable Bede said 1291 years ago:

    “The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.” (Bede. 731. Ecclesiastical History of the English People.)