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29 August 2011

Within my reach!

Within my reach!
I could have touched!
I might have chanced that way!
Soft sauntered thro' the village—
Sauntered as soft away!
So unsuspected Violets
Within the meadows go—
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago!
                                        - F 69 (1859)

This refrain of just having missed something reminds me of countless fishing and mushrooming trips where someone invariably pipes up, “You should have been here yesterday!” In this case the poet recounts how she might have walked through the village into the meadow and found the ephemeral Violets. However, she didn’t chance that way. 
 Dickinson might have been talking about one of her favourite flowers, the violet, or else the Violet-tip butterfly (polygonia interrogationis), The latter  has a surge of lovely lavender across its back wings in the summer. It is even more ephemeral than the flower because it flits around and can blend unseen in the shrubs and nettles it enjoys. In fact, I’m going to argue for the butterfly as the subject for the following reasons: first, they ‘go’ in the meadows, something that flowers, which can only sit, do not; second, the fingers are ‘striving’—and although you might have to strive to find a wild violet, your fingers wouldn’t have to strive to pick it. 
But it’s not a particularly important point for this poem. Rather, Dickinson is talking about chance and choice. We often lose a chance for something because of small choices we make.
The first five lines speak of something the poet would have wanted, something in town, but nothing heavy or else she couldn’t have ‘Sauntered as soft away’ as she had come. The last four lines compare this to Violet hunting:  you have to be there at just the right time. Timing accounts for quite a bit in the scheme of this poem. Dickinson would certainly have encountered the idea in her Shakespeare readings, particularly in Lear and Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Violet-tip Butterfly (from
Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

Dickinson avoids the martial and heroic imagery of Shakespeare with the remarkably homely analogy of village walks and Violet hunting. She may also be talking (again) about the meaning of life and death. As in F 67 where the poet arrives at the deathbed too late, so here the poet misses the the passing of a soul, an ‘unsuspected Violet’ that has gone into the meadow. But in this case she has been too early as the ‘striving fingers’ were there ‘an hour ago’. 


  1. The clue that unlocked this riddle poem for me is in the last two lines: “Too late for striving fingers /
    That passed, an hour ago!” Where did I recently read lines like these? Why, just two poems ago!: “An hour behind the fleeting breath—/ Later by just an hour than Death—” (Fr 67, ‘Delayed till she had ceased to know’). ED obsessed over Death. If only she had been there watching an hour ago, she could have reached out and touched Death as its “striving fingers” killed not only all the plants in her garden, but every plant in every garden in the entire village of Amherst. (Comments 2 and 3, Fr67).

    ED dearly loved her garden and personified its denizens at every opportunity. She was mightily ticked off when, an hour before dawn on June 12, 1859, Jack Frost killed every flower she had so carefully planted during the unusually early spring. She was so mad that she threatened to sue God: “Jove! Choose your counsel—/ I retain "Shaw"! (Fr101, ‘“I had some things that I called mine— And God, that he called his – ‘, Lemuel Shaw was the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, 1830-1860.)

    Like Ishmael in Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, the “unsuspected Violets / within the meadows” were the only survivors. Death sauntered past them without noticing because they bloomed an hour later, soon after sunrise.