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08 September 2011

New feet within my garden go—

New feet within my garden go—
New fingers stir the sod—
A Troubadour upon the Elm
Betrays the solitude.

New children play upon the green—
New Weary sleep below—
And still the pensive Spring returns—
And still the punctual snow!
                                                      - F 79 (1859)

There’s a new world each Spring—or at least a rebirth. To Dickinson, this is a type of Resurrection, one that each of us can experience annually. The first stanza here emphasizes the rebirth with spondees beginning with “New”: “New feet” and “New fingers”. We’re meant to really feel the newness. And in fact the images are tactile. Feet are walking in a garden, fingers are in the dirt. It’s a silent scene, with the new bunnies and other garden creatures venturing out and new fingers of spring shoots pushing their way up. But then Robin or some other songster begins to sing. The poet ironically casts this as betraying the solitude, but it is an affectionate jibe at one of her garden favourites.
            The second stanza begins with the same spondeed “New”—but this time a more somber element is introduced. Yes, there are new children out to play, but there also the newly buried. Completing the change in mood to one more somber, the last two lines begin with a plaintive iamb: “And still”. The emphasis on the word ‘still’ underscores the continuity it implies. Despite the deaths (indicated by the ‘Weary’ who ‘sleep below’ and also implied by the “New” feet and fingers that have presumably replaced last year’s denizens), Spring returns. But it is not a joyful, triumphant Spring as one  might expect. Dickinson qualifies it as a ‘pensive Spring’ as if the season of rebirth is not without cognizance of the progression of life feeding on death, death being necessary for new life. The final “And still” brings us the ‘punctual snow!’. Winter doesn’t cool its heels thinking about its ramifications. It comes like clockwork.
The use of these two interesting adjectives—‘pensive’ and ‘punctual’—together with the poetic devices of repetition and meter, show Dickinson’s ability to compact quite a bit of meaning and nuance in what initially appears to be a simple scene.


  1. "And still the punctual snow!" is such a beautiful line. "And still" conveys eternity; "punctual" conveys what changes, what dies. All of life in one line.

    And I agree -- "pensive Spring" is so beautiful too. Sometimes the juxtaposition of words sends off sparks. Pensive means resting, sad and thoughtful and contrasts with the vitality of Spring -- maybe what Spring would feel like from the perspective of eternity. But the words also remind me of "pent" and "coiled" -- energy about to be released.

    1. Yes -- entirely agree. And I hadn't thought about the doubled meaning of Spring. Thanks.

  2. wow! really amazing!

  3. Her work is so amazing. it is cool how she can change meanings of words with ease.

  4. The first six lines:

    On August 16, 1859, ED’s ancient African-American gardener, “Old Amos”, died at 84 (‘Went up a year this evening’), but his new grandchild, Dwight Newport, arrived that same year, destined to become a sports trainer at Amherst College for 25 years and father of his successor, Edward Newport, who held the same position and worked for the College for 50 years. Today there is a 19th-century dormitory at the College, Newport Hall, named in their honor. Songbirds may interrupt the solitude of her garden, but the cycle of life continues.

    The last two lines:

    Winter and spring of 1859 in Amherst were unusually warm; farmers and gardeners plowed in March and planted potatoes early. By the end of May, three weeks after average last frost, corn was two weeks ahead of schedule, and ED’s annuals promised early bouquets. During the night of June 11, a light frost did little harm. Without reliable forecasts, Amherst could not know that the night of June 12 would bring a hard frost and convert ED’s promising flower beds into a cemetery decorated with hoarfrost (‘Delayed till she had ceased to know’). ED was so angry, she threatened to sue God (‘I had some things that I called mine’). BYU’s ED Lexicon lists two appropriate definitions for the descriptor “pensive” as regards the spring of 1859: unconcerned and indifferent. Given the previous spring, ED was certain that her least favorite season, winter, would arrive punctually. By gar (Shakespeare, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’), if Fate handed out lemons, ED would retaliate with lemon-flavored poems.