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08 August 2011

Whose cheek is this?

Whose cheek is this?
What rosy face
Has lost a blush today?
I found her—"pleiad"—in the woods
And bore her safe away.

Robins, in the tradition
Did cover such with leaves,
But which the cheek—
And which the pall
My scrutiny deceives.
                                                     - F 48 (1859)

David Preest has this to say about the poem: 
"Emily sent this poem as a pencilled note to Sue. At the top of it was mounted a tiny
picture of a bird, and the thread which probably attached a flower to the note still
remains. In the traditional story robins covered the dead bodies of the ‘Babes lost in
the Wood.’ A ‘pall’ is the funeral garment for a dead body. The ‘lost Pleiad’ was
explained in the note on poem 23 [F 12]. But that is as far as the facts take us. All else is
     All right -- I like guesswork!
     First, let's admit that the poem frames the discovery of a misplaced or lost flower in the woods as the discovery of a freshly dead or at least swooned girl. The poet comes across her and comments that traditionally robins covered bodies as they rifle through the duff looking for grub. I sort of like that the flower was attached to the note by a thread--as if it had been hanged. Ah, playful Dickinson! 
     So let's just think about what sort of flower it might be. It was once rosy or pinkish but now is newly faded. It was found in the woods but either doesn't really belong there or else it was on a tree but fell prematurely. The 'cheek' or petals are now pale--as is the 'pall' or, perhaps, sepals.
     I have two guesses: First, the flowering dogwood. It begins rosy but will fade, especially if it falls from the tree. It's beautiful and would make a nice enclosure in a note. What seems to be the petals are actually the sepals, so this flower makes sense in two ways: color and cheek/pall confusion.
     My second is the Indian Pipe Plant--mostly because it is also called Corpse Plant and grows in decaying leaves. Robins would certainly be covering this little beauty up as they hunt. And it certainly plays into the poor, dead 'Babes in the Wood' theme.
     But decide for yourself. Dickinson was fond of both plants and would wander in the woods to find them. Here are two pictures:
Flowering Dogwood
Indian Pipe Plant (Corpse Plant)


  1. Excellent alternatives to Preest, who goes on to opine: "Did Emily find in the woods a flower which seemed to be lost or dead,which, when she got it home, was so far gone that she could not tell the difference between its flower (‘the cheek’) and its leaves (‘the pall’)?"

  2. As far as the flower is concerned, I'm stuck on the word -"pleiad"- which brings up the number seven - seven petals on the flower? But why put the word in quotation marks?

    1. Ah. This is probably a reference to the Pleiades -- a star cluster whose name refers to seven sisters (insert complicated Greek mythology here). Anyway, you can generally only see six stars so the mythology includes a story of the lost sister. So Dickinson's idea here is that she has found her in the woods.