Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so—
And nobody knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there,
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there—
Why – look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go—
And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life,
Some burning noon go dry!
- F 94 (1859) 136
Rather than still waters running deep, Dickinson presents us with an image of a “little heart” with not a river but a Brook. It’s flowers are “bashful”, and so delicate and tremulous a place it is that even the birds blush to drink there and “shadows tremble.” If that weren’t enough, it can get swollen to bursting in the floods of spring—its “bridges often go” – and in late summer it might very well dry up altogether.
The poet asks the reader directly whether or not she has a little brook of her own, implying that some people don’t have this lifespring. Perhaps they just plod along lifelessly, or perhaps they have a less vulnerable source of life. Brook people get easily overwhelmed with floods of emotion or wither away without any life-giving water to replenish it. Maybe river people keep a more even keel.
I don’t find this one of Dickinson’s more successful poems. The first line puts me on the spot: Am I alive enough, do I have such a lovely spot inside me? Yet by the end of the poem I’m questioning the value of such a vulnerable source for a “little draught of life.” Perhaps the key word is “little.” A little heart requires only a little “draught of life.” The voice itself is little and bashful, opening with that timid-sounding question. Several phrases are inverted in service of the rhyme, and this always strikes me as lazy. Dickinson doesn’t need to do it in other poems but here we have “so still it flows” and “the meadows parching lie.”
The meter and rhyme, however, move the poem along at a nice, bubbling-brook pace. Several long “o” words and rhymes provide a nice open feel: blow, so, nobody knows, flows, overflow, go. The meter is a charming combination of iambs and anapests: “And nobody knows, so still it flows” can be read as iamb, anapest, iamb, iamb. Similar patterns are seen in the 9th and 15th lines.
It seems likely to me that Dickinson is writing about the source of her poetry. She wrote her poems alone in her room and no one knew how very many she wrote. Her sister and life-long friend were amazed at the quantity. Sometimes she might be flooded with creativity, but she was always aware of the fragility of it all. She knew very well that without a well spring or rain, her poetry would “go dry.”