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25 August 2011

Baffled for just a day or two—

Baffled for just a day or two—
Embarrassed—not afraid—
Encounter in my garden
An unexpected Maid.

She beckons, and the woods start—
She nods, and all begin—
Surely, such a country
I was never in!
                                               J16,  Fr 66 (1859)

This poem was sent with a rosebud to a friend. It speaks of the great love Dickinson had for her garden. An early rose, a signal to the woods that Spring is here, transports her to a different place—a country she was never in before. I like the image of the young rose beckoning and the trees and woodland flowers all begin their own adornment in response.
            The question in the poem lies in the first two lines. The speaker has been baffled, but only for a ‘day or two’, and she is quick to say that it isn’t fear that she also feels, but embarrassment. We aren’t told what has baffled the speaker, why she is embarrassed, or why she should specify that she isn’t afraid. Does it have something to do with the Hollands – for it was Mrs. Holland to whom the poem and bud was sent. Or does it refer to a general state of mind: the speaker feels among the trees and plants of her garden a natural reticence, akin to embarrassment, that we feel when among those we venerate but feel are above us in some way. She is baffled by the subtle changes she sees until she encounters the early rose, harbinger of Spring.
            The last line is a bit awkward. Dickinson ends with a barely accented preposition employed, seemingly, in order to have something to rhyme with ‘begin’. Not a good enough excuse and not a good enough line! But it works for me that she drops the subject in the first three lines so that the first words are important verbs: “Baffled," “Embarrassed," and “Encounter." It sets up the narrative nicely: the baffled and embarrassed state of mind, the encounter with the flower, and then the second stanza begins the alteration with the flower having the joy of all the action. At the end, the speaker’s mood is one of happy wonder. 


  1. The poem is about philosophical idealism. The speaker was existentally baffled before, but now sees that the maid is creating her world, step by step. The speaker cannot be part of *that* world. (E.D. was able to represent abstract philosophical ideas in homely terms.)

    1. How would you work the 'embarrassed' into that reading?

    2. "Embarrassed" basically means "barred or blocked". Online Etymology Dictionary gives some extended meanings::

      1670s, "perplex, throw into doubt," from French embarrasser (16c.), literally "to block," from Italian imbarrazzo, from imbarrare "to bar," from assimilated form of in- "into, upon" (from PIE root *en "in") + Vulgar Latin *barra "bar"... Meaning "to hamper, hinder" is from 1680s. Meaning "make (someone) feel awkward" first recorded 1828.

    3. Thank *you* for what you are doing!

  2. Franklin assigned a date of 1859 for the composition of ‘Baffled for just a day or two’.

    The New England Farmer, 1859 edition (published in Springfield, MA) reported that spring of 1859 “opened very early, the ground being in condition for plowing in the latter part of March, continued very forward, and as a whole was very fine. The trees, "arrayed themselves in green" with more than usual rapidity ; cherry trees were in full bloom on the 9th [of March], and apple trees by the 18th, at least, a week in advance of last year, ten days ahead of 1857, and three days earlier than the average for the last half century.”

    ED, recognized in Amherst for her gardening skills and her scientific interest in botany, would certainly have noticed the early spring, her garden flowers blossoming earlier than usual. At first ED was baffled, then embarrassed [first definition of ‘embarrassed’ in Harvard’s Dickinson Lexicon is “confused”], but not afraid, to encounter this “unexpected Maid”, so early in her garden. The Maid “beckoned” and the trees "arrayed themselves in green"; She nodded, and ED’s garden flowers bloomed. Surely, ED had never seen such a spring.