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21 August 2011

I keep my pledge

I keep my pledge.
I was not called—
Death did not notice me.
I bring my Rose.
I plight again,
By every sainted Bee—
By Daisy called from hillside—
by Bobolink from lane.
Blossom and I—
Her oath, and mine—
Will surely come again.
                                                        - F 63 (1859)  46

One can read this poem in two ways—the specific and the metaphoric. Read for its specifics, we see the poet standing by the grave of someone dear to her. She has a Rose in her hand, the symbol of beauty and life. She pledges from her familiar trinity of nature words (that start with ‘B’!): Bee, Bobolink, and Blossom, that she will come back. It’s a lovely statement of constancy—although she was not called by Death, she will keep the memory of the departed one alive.
            And yet… the opening lines alert us to something deeper going on here. To be ‘called’ in the Puritan tradition means one has been selected to be saved. No every person is, and not every person who is called will answer the call. The ‘pledge’ is to pledge one’s heart, life, and soul to the Christian God and Jesus. Today we simply call it being saved. Interestingly, a few years earlier a revival had swept Amherst and many citizens wrote out a pledge. Emily’s family and friends did, but Emily did not.
            Instead, Dickinson makes her own pledge: not in the church venue or according to what her peers were doing, but to her favored church: that of the hillside and lane, that of the ‘sainted Bee’ and faithful Daisy, and chorister Bobolink. In poems F22 and F23, she links such natural emblems to her worship and sense of the divine. Her Rose, a flower she often uses to symbolize life or hope (among other things), is bound to ‘surely come again’—and so is the poet. The Blossom, of course, returns every season. that is it’s ‘oath.’ Likewise, the poet says she too will come again. The poet expects a resurrection, a blooming in the better world of Paradise.
            This idea is supported in F54 where she breathes in the fragrance of a blossom and is transported to the ‘fadeless orchards’ where one can hear the lovely song of the bobolink and see the Rose in its ideal entirety.


  1. I read it as a meditation on her NDE. Remember, her marker has the phrase, "Called back."

  2. “I keep my pledge” opens with a promise somehow contingent on ED surviving two epidemics that hit Amherst during 1858. Her brother, Austin, had contracted typhoid fever and his friend, Frazar Stearns, had been “very sick” with the same disease. During November, scarlet fever had killed eight-year-old Harriet Matthews, daughter of the Dickinsons’ Irish stable keeper. Her funeral may have motivated ED’s “There’s something quieter than sleep”.

    In 1859, after the epidemics subsided, “I keep my pledge” tells us that ED brought a rose to someone affectionately called “Blossom” and swore anew on her sacred trinity, the Bee, the Daisy, and the Bobolink, that she will keep her part of the bargain, in hopes that the oath between Blossom and ED “will surely come again”. Blossom, Flower, and Flower Bud were affection nicknames that ED called Susan Gilbert, later Susan Dickinson, during their 37-year relationship.

    ED may have met Susan Gilbert during the 1840s when Susan visited her older married sister, Harriet, in Amherst, but the first documented mention of their friendship is an 1850 letter to Susan from ED's brother, Austin, in which he remarks that on the previous Thanksgiving, 1849, Emily and her sister, Lavinia, had her invited Susan's "family into the circle which had for two or three years been gradually forming.” ED and Susan began their friendship by sharing their love of poetry but quickly fell deeply in love with each other, which continued until ED’s death in 1886.

    Four letters, among many, reveal the intensity of ED’s feelings for Susan:

    • May 1852: “These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it.” [During the 1851-52 school year, Susan taught high school mathematics in Baltimore.]

    • June 1852: “And now how soon I shall have you, shall hold you in my arms; you will forgive the tears, Susie, they are so glad to come that it is not in my heart to reprove them and send them home. I dont know why it is — but there's something in your name, now you are taken from me, which fills my heart so full, and my eye, too.”

    • January 1855:… “I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens”.

    • 1877 (a letter-poem to Susan)

    “To own a Susan of my own
    Is of itself a Bliss —
    Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
    Continue me in this!”

    Not many letters from Susan to Emily still exist, but one that does, from the early 1860s, suggests how much Susan loved ED.

    “I have intended to write you, Emily, today but the quiet has not been mine. I send you this, lest I should seem to have turned away from a kiss – If you have suffered this past summer I am sorry! Emily, bear a sorrow that I never uncover – – If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we! When I can, I shall write —

    1. It's interesting that you mention “There’s something quieter than sleep” because that poem directly precedes this one in Fascicle 2. That suggests to me that ED saw these two poems as thematically related.

  3. The poem seems to be a follow-up to F 53 „If I should cease to bring a Rose.“