Search This Blog

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.

  3. OK, that makes sense. That is a lot of thought and reference for one sentence. So, the quotation mark's are the mid-19th century's equivalent of italics?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. That's great info, but don't blame Preest for the dogwood et. al -- that was me!

  6. Susan, Apologies, I missed the end-of-quote mark after the first paragraph. And congratulations for hitting a 4-run homer on your second strike. It was you who led me down the Hansel and Gretel trail. Your “Indian Pipe Plant (Corpse Plant)”, nailed ED’s riddle and led to a trail of tasty internet tidbits, listed in no particular order:

    Monotropa uniflora has many common names: ghost plant, ghost pipe, Indian pipe, corpse plant , fungus flowers, convulsion root, death plant, ice plant, and bird’s nest. Linnaeus chose the scientific name, which translates ‘one turn / one flower’, as Susan K’s photo shows. Her photo also shows a rosy-hued stem, which can be more pronounced in neighboring plants. Did Susan K search to find a photo with seven flowering pleiads and, perhaps not by accident, an almost invisible stem hiding in the soil? Susan only knows.

    Monotropa uniflora is a parasite of a parasite of a tree, which would have been grist for ED’s poetry mill had she known. Its intermediate host is Russula (Latin ‘red’), a mushroom genus that is parasitic on tree roots. “Parasitic” is a misleading term, but that’s another tale.

    “Emily Dickinson’s first book of poetry, published posthumously, has this flower on the cover. It was one of her favorite[s], if not very favorite, wild flower. ….[T]oward the end of [ED’s] life Mrs. [Mabel] Todd, Emily’s brother’s long-term lover, painted her a picture of these flowers”. ED thanked her inimatively “that without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none. [I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering Child, an unearthly booty, and maturity only enhances mystery, never decreases it.] (Letter 769, 1882)”. (

    The kindness of her thank-you note may mask an EDesque joke. A week after the waxy-white flowers bloom, they and the stalks fade to brown, but in the process the flowers don’t wilt. They erect themselves and the stems stiffen, becoming pillars with prominent heads pointing skyward, possibly putting a new spin on Letter 769. In 1859, ED had stitched a stiff stem with its heavenward head onto her pencilled poem for Susan; Preest’s “playful Dickinson”, indeed. As the following Facebook photo shows, Marc Thorman (Reply 1) was the first of four runners to cross home plate.
    Harvard’s image of ED’s manuscript:; search term “whose cheek is this”

    Apologies also to David Preest, who loved playing cricket, but would have pondered the baseball allusion as much as I pondered and abandoned cricket lingo to close this comment.