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29 August 2011

So bashful when I spied her!

So bashful when I spied her!
So pretty—so ashamed!
So hidden in her leaflets
Lest anybody find—

So breathless till I passed here—
So helpless when I turned
And bore her struggling, blushing,
Her simple haunts beyond!

For whom I robbed the Dingle—
For whom betrayed the Dell—
Many, will doubtless ask me,
But I shall never tell!
                                              - F 70 (1859)  91

Here the poet turns an image of a Fallen Eve into an image of forcible abduction to describe her theft of a flower for an unspecified recipient. The poem begins innocently enough. A flower is bashfully hidden amid its protecting leaflets. The analogy to Eve is signaled by its being ‘ashamed’ as Eve was ashamed to appear naked before God and so is usually seen with fig leaves artfully draped about her to hide her nakedness. But things take a turn for the worse in the second stanza. Instead of a romantic knight or other benign figure tenderly plucking the flower for someone who will love it, the poet pretty much deflowers it, carrying it ‘struggling’ and ‘helpless’ away from its simple home.
The last stanza tells us it is all a bit of a lark. The flower taken from the Dingle (a wooded valley or dell) is but a gift for a friend. But the imagery has shifted yet again. From Eve hidden in shame, to a helpless maiden forcibly abducted, we now see the poet as a thief and betrayer. The tone, however, is far from dark. Instead it is mischievously ironic: the slight and gentle poet no doubt carefully picks and tends to the bud but enjoys donning the mantle of brigand and cad for the amusement of her audience.


  1. A good interpretation, but in the second line of the last stanza is an "I" that shouldn't be there.

    1. Thank you -- I corrected it and it makes a marked improvement in the meter!

  2. Try reading the poem at face value without preconceived assumptions about whether ED’s personality or intentions are “slight and gentle”. A passing poet spies a bashful, pretty, ashamed, hiding, helpless young flower bud that is holding its breath to avoid detection, an easy target for a possessive, predatory poet. Poets like metaphors, so substitute “girl” for “flower bud”. What is “slight and gentle” about grabbing a struggling, blushing girl and dragging her from her home? Words matter, and these words portray a person who feels entitled to possess a young girl and then share her with an anonymous acquaintance. Without projecting preconceived motivations onto the poet, where is the clue that this is anything but evil, harming an innocent person? Where is the “mischievous irony”?............Of course, I’m just joking.

  3. Yesterday I read and commented harshly on ‘So bashful when I spied her’. Today I asked my poet wife if I was missing some clue within this poem itself, not within a preconceived notion of ED’s personality. In short, her answer was yes.

    The first clue, she said, is the sing-song nature of the rhyme and rhythm, which an astute poetry reader recognizes as traits of a children’s’ verse rather than a condensed version of Shakespeare’s ‘Rape of Lucrece’.

    The second clue is the capitalized “Dingle” and “Dell” in the third stanza. These are words often found in Scottish and Irish poetry, some children’s verses and some not, for example, ‘Fern Hill’ by Dylan Thomas. These clues, which I missed, convince me that my preconceived notion of ED as not only a great poet but also a spoiled rich girl with a strong sense of inherited entitlement, colored my literal focus on the objective (and superficial) definitions of words in the poems.

    I am not alone; here is a brief thread of comments about ‘So bashful when I spied her’ from

    “Carleigh B says:

    April 10, 2020 at 10:58 pm

    As a rather new reader of poetry, this really resonates with me. It’s incredibly beautiful, and personal, and I can see a story so vividly. A beautiful girl being described as if she were a shy flower, not yet aware of her beauty. The narrator stealing her away from her “simple haunts” that are like a Dingle or a Dell. It could absolutely be a lesbian couple, running away in secret as both of them are just awestruck-in-love with each other. Neither of them can tell anyone who their lover is because of the time period – it’s absolutely beautiful!!

    “Jacob says:

    February 16, 2021 at 10:51 pm

    Yes, it is a beautiful poem, but I’m afraid I must agree with Margaret. The poet is pretending to be a man seducing a shy young girl, but she’s really describing picking a wildflower that is trying its best to resist being picked.
    “Victoria Logue says:

    March 17, 2022 at 1:15 pm

    I agree. She may have loved Susan Dickinson, but she did not send this poem to her. Many, many of her poems are about nature, particularly the flowers she adored.
    “Margaret says:

    January 10, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Stupid people! She is talking about picking flowers from a field. Emily Dickinson found beauty and God in nature. The object of beauty is the flower. The leaflets are its petals or the leaves around it. Dickinson is breathless gazing at a field of flowers, the flower struggles and blushes as she picks it. She has robbed the dell.

    “Sarah says:

    May 17, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    This poem is very personal! It shows you and tells you that Emily was a lesbian and that she did love a woman! This poem could have made her life better or worse if people would have seen it before she died! At least she spoke the truth to us! She wasn’t afraid to tell us who she really was! And even though it goes against my belief that god is everything and that his commandments we should follow, ! would be proud of myself if i told everyone who i was like that! If it was something else i would have loved this poem! But it goes against my beliefs so thank you for telling me who you really are Emily!

    “Roman says:

    March 16, 2006 at 8:26 pm

    ‘So Bashful’ is Dickinson’s testament to lesbianism, perhaps her supposed love for her good friend Susan Dickinson speaks to the scandal of the suggested relationship, admitting the embarrasment of her partner to be involved in such a socially unacceptable affair. She speaks lovingly, thought demands a masculine Prescence, describing herself taking her partner’s virginity (betrayed the dell). In reviewing personal letters to her friend and alleged lover Susan, this poem takes on a similar heir of confident and unashamed love in the midst of Susan’s lack of total acceptance of the relationship.”