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20 August 2011

If she had been the Mistletoe

If she had been the Mistletoe
And I had been the Rose —
How gay upon your table
My velvet life to close!
Since I am of the Druid —
And she is of the dew —
I'll deck Tradition's buttonhole —
And send the Rose to you.
                                                                - F 60 (1859)

This was sent as a note to Samuel Bowles, a beloved (some say very beloved) friend. It sounds like a Christmas letter with the mistletoe reference and the idea of decking someone’s buttonhole; a rose may well have accompanied the note. She says as much in the last line.
            The poet begins by identifying herself as "Mistletoe" and imagining she might have traded places with the Rose. She clearly takes pride in her druidic mistletoe-ness, however. The mistletoe lives on and feeds off the oak, whereas the lovely cultivated Rose depends on dew and other water that must be supplied. While dew is lovely it is ephemeral; beautiful woodland oaks, on the other hand, are heavy and enduring. They would  be prominent among the sacred groves, or nemetons, of the druids. In his Natural History, which Dickinson would have read, Pliny describes the oak and mistletoe rite:
The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing.... Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon....Hailing the moon in a native word that means 'healing all things,' they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.
          When the poet says she is a Druid, she isn’t saying that she is a pagan or magician, but rather identifying with their practice of worshipping outdoors, of studying the  mysteries, of being withdrawn from gay society life. She is also saying that had she been a rose and come to Bowles, rather than staying at her sacred groves at Amherst, it would have killed her, or at least the essential part of her. No, better for her to send the rose.
       There may be another message in this poem. Bowles and Dickinson's sister-in-law, the vivacious Sue, had an ongoing flirtation. Sue fits the Rose description pretty well. "I couldn't be like her," Dickinson is implying. "I'm more wild and woodland than velvet and table. But for Christmas, I'll "send the Rose to you." And that would be her nod to the Samuel Bowles-Sue Dickinson flirtation.


  1. All well said. I would only add a few minor observations to yours. The first is that this poem was the very first manuscript known to have been given by Dickinson to "Mr. Bowles" (Samuel Bowles, the editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican newspaper), a man who clearly had an arresting and powerful influence on Dickinson. In that manuscript the poet underlined the word "she" (Line 1) which immediately calls attention to the identity-play going on in the poem. "She" was not emphasized in any way in the poem Dickinson copied into Fascicle 2. I would also note that the word "Druid" does not appear anywhere else in the Dickinson oeuvre. The only reference to anything related to "Druid" occurs in a letter that she wrote to her neighbor Mrs. Henry Hills around 1883 (Letter 849). The letter inquired about a recipe for a sacred and unforgettable Cake that Mrs. Hills baked and sent over to the Dickinson household. The poet associated this miracle of sweetness to "a remembrance of nectar" and "Druidic odors" that brought back reverential memories of the Cake and its maker. --Stephen Eric Berry, Ann Arbor.

    1. Thank you for this additional insight. It's strange, now that I think about it, that Dickinson only used 'druid' only the two times. It seems so apt for her and her work.