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09 August 2011

It did not surprise me —

It did not surprise me—
So I said—or thought—
She will stir her pinions
And the nest forgot,

Traverse broader forests—
Build in gayer boughs,
Breathe in Ear more modern
God's old fashioned vows—

This was but a Birdling—
What and if it be
One within my bosom
Had departed me?

This was but a story—
What and if indeed
There were just such coffin
In the heart instead?
                                                               - F 50 (1859)
Birdlings stretch their wings and fly to find a new home; comparing this process to young people 'leaving the nest' is a common metaphor. Dickinson begins the poem by applying this philosophic resignation to a friend or perhaps young relative leaving quiet Amherst for a 'gayer' more 'modern' place. Interestingly, she posits exposure to new-fangled ideas versus 'old fashioned' Biblical teachings as breathing in 'Ear'--as if listening were breathing, taking in sound akin to taking in breath.
     Dickinson returns to that idea in her 1862 poem (F 340) "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." Here, as the poet begins to swoon or otherwise break down, she hears "Boots of Lead" treading through her brain, and "then Space – began to toll, / As all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear,". In both poems the Ear becomes the primary organ. In F 50, it is the filter through which life is understood. The modern Ear would hear God's vows quite differently than would Puritan-influenced Amherst. In F340, the Ear is the only sensory organ and all it hears are the tolling of the Heavens. The conceit gives new meaning to the religious notion of the Received Word.
     The poem continues to say, 'Well, so Birdlings will go their own ways and forget the nest, but what if this Birdling were among my beloved? What then? The poet doesn't answer directly but in the penultimate line substitutes the word 'coffin' for the earlier 'nest'. Would the poet want to confine a beloved in the 'coffin' of the heart? It is tempting to think that the coffin would hold the heart, which would presumably be broken when the beloved bird had flown away, but Dickinson carefully writes of the coffin "in" the heart rather than "of" the heart. It would be burying the Birdling alive, entombed in confining love. 


  1. Dear Susan,
    I have been intrigued, just like you, by the last three lines:

    What and if indeed
    There were just such coffin
    In the heart instead?

    What the first two stanzas produce is acknowledgement and acceptance (albeit a bitter one) of being deserted by someone the lyric sppeaker cares for. Up to this point this falling apart does not sound an unexepcted one ("It did not surprise me") since the speaker is full of hope (the use of "will")for the future occupation of the loved one (the fledgling bird or bard) who has a mission of "making new" of God's hackneyed sayings and blessings.

    Both stanza 3 and 4 assert something pertaining to the loved one (both beginning with the parallel structures "This was") and doubt (both asking a question to be hardly resolved, "what if").

    Back to the intriguing part:
    I tend to think that the lyric speaker is attempting to find some sort of solace, some wishful thinking that after the heart did not house a birdling but a coffin instead.

    So, we may assume that poem traverses through a maze of conflicting emotions in each stanza:
    S.1. expectation/fear/prediction/accepatance of an imminent loss
    S.2. relieving thoughts that the loved one to missed will serve an artistic/spiritual/religious mission
    S.3. doubt #1 :what if this birdling is the one that occupied my soul/heart?
    S.4. doubt #2 / but also relief: that was a story, something fictitious and after all my heart did not contain a birdling.

    Thus, the poem turs into a declaration of the futility of possessive love (motherly, amorous, etc.).

    1. Yes, well said. I like your commentary on how the parallels develop the poem's thought. And as to the futility of possessive love, I wonder if that doesn't hearken back to God's 'old fashioned vows' -- vows of filial piety, faithfulness, til death do us part, etc.

  2. It did not surprise me—
    So I said—or thought—
    When Katie returned home after her visit
    And forgot about Amherst, to

    Traverse broader forests,
    Build in gayer boughs,
    Whisper into the ear of a new love
    God's quaint marriage vows

    Katie was young, and we expected her to leave us
    But what if
    Had stopped loving me, or died?

    Katie’s visit was an interlude in our lives
    But what if
    My heart held a coffin
    Containing your dead love, or your corpse?