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13 August 2011

"Lethe" in my flower,

"Lethe" in my flower,
Of which they who drink

In the fadeless orchards

Hear the bobolink!

Merely flake or petal

As the Eye beholds

Jupiter! my father!

I perceive the rose!
                                                   - F 54 (1859)
Divided in two quatrains, the poem contains an epiphany experienced in an almost trance-like state. The first quatrain has the poet contemplating a flower, perhaps inhaling its fragrance. It is as if she sipped from the river of forgetfulness, the Lethe of Greek myth that caused all who drank from it to forget their former lives. The “Lethe” in her flower transports her to that eternal realm where orchards are ‘fadeless’ and the song of the bobolink– Dickinson’s ‘chorister’ in a future poem – can be heard.
The second stanza is full of wonder, the two exclamation points underscoring the excitement of recognition as she is able to perceive on a higher level. What in her everyday life she saw as an assemblage of fragrant petals, to her now awakened or eternal eye becomes the thing entire—the rose. She first cries out to Jupiter in keeping with the earlier classical reference (“Zeus” would have been the appropriate Greek name, but “Jupiter” works better poetically here), then pivots to the more Christian “my father”.
               The poem is a meditation on the art of knowing. It is more Plato than Keats. While Keats contemplated the Grecian Urn and revealed his abstract epiphany about beauty being truth, truth beauty, Plato would have us understand that while we see the shadow or parts of things, the true reality is the ideal form. In this poem Dickinson shows that what is important isn’t the beauty of the flower, although that may be its transporting quality, but the true nature of the flower in its ideal entirety.


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  2. Dear Susan: Thanks for this insightful commentary on this twelfth poem in Dickinson's Second Book ("Fascicle"). Yes, this is poem "full of wonder." I feel like it molts out of itself at Line 7 and succeeds in a Beuysian sense of creating around itself a world that is "a question looking to be augmented." Dickinson, again, as she does so often, succeeds in sending us right back to interrogating the mundane. Here the undermining focus is on the ordinary notion that forgetting our lives by drinking Lethe's waters would be a subtraction, a negativity. Dickinson suggests that the dead may enter into a supersensible dimension by drinking in forgetfulness and experience sounds (such as the bobolink's song) that emerge from that drinking. In taking us through this epiphany, Dickinson's realization of the Platonic form of what may be an ideal rose feels, by comparison, stuck in realms connected to the retinal while the dead, relieved of their memories, exhibit a genius for transforming perceptions or perhaps they are the passive recipients of a genius from elsewhere. I look forward to reading more of your comments. All best, Stephen, Ann Arbor.

    1. I hadn't thought of comparing the two epiphanies: the dead who now can hear bobolink, and the living poet who now sees the rose entire -- the thing itself. It seems fitting. The dead transcend the limits of sensory perception while the poet must needs see things for themselves.

      Thanks for your insightful comment!

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  5. Poems, many poets say, conceive and gestate in their subconscious without intentional control by the poet. For example, in her 1858 poem, “Before the ice is in the pools”, ED stands in awe of her inspirations of last summer, and she is confident that more are "walking just a bridge away" and that they will come to her before winter. Nevertheless. she wonders whether her mental and emotional "dress" of last summer, in which she shed tears of creative joy, will be capable of receiving inspirations that lie ahead.

    Now, in her 1859 poem, “Lethe in my flower”, winter has passed and once again she is astonished at the power of her poems to transport those who understand to a brief vision of heaven, where they hear the angels’ choir. As she grasps, perhaps for the first time, the meaning of each word and phrase of her poems, she gives gratitude for her gift to pagan Jupiter, father of the gods, and proclaims to the world that He also is her father.