Search This Blog

04 October 2011

Flowers—Well—if anybody

Flowers—Well—if anybody
Can the ecstasy define—
Half a transport—half a trouble—
With which flowers humble men:
Anybody find the fountain
From which floods so contra flow—
I will give him all the Daisies
Which upon the hillside blow.

Too much pathos in their faces
For a simple breast like mine—
Butterflies from St. Domingo
Cruising round the purple line—
Have a system of aesthetics—
Far superior to mine.
                                                                       - F95 (1859)  137

It’s interesting that the poet finds too much intense feeling (“pathos”) “For a simple breast like mine” in daisies when she identifies herself as “Daisy” in other poems, notoriously the Master poems. Perhaps this might illuminate those poems a bit, suggest that the poet / Daisy is under the influence of passion and other strong emotions. Today, daisies typically indicate purity and innocence. I wonder if Dickinson was alone in equating them with passion.
            She is questioning here the root of human response to flowers. Their effect is to create an “ecstasy” that is humbling. Such ecstasy might be akin to rapture or it might suggest the “transport” one gets from contemplation of the extraordinary—or both. But mingling with this transport is an equal measure of “trouble.” She’s not referring, I don’t think, to the labor of gardening, but to the existential dread engendered by coming face to face with the Beautiful. But where, she asks, does such a torrent of contradictory feeling come from? As if she has been mulling the question for quite a while, she begins the poem in a mock exasperated tone: “Flowers – Well – if anybody / Can the ecstasy define – … I will give him all the Daisies / Which upon the hillside blow.” This leads her to think further about daisies. She clearly doesn’t prefer them (at least as indicated in this poem): she is too “simple.”
Butterfly on purple aster

            She turns, then to the butterflies, perhaps the Monarchs which over the span of three of four generations arrive in New England from distant southerly points in time for spring. They don’t cross the Equator,  and neither is the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo on the other side of the Equator, so I think the “purple line” refers to the daisies themselves—perhaps purple asters. The butterflies, delicate and ephemeral as they are, are able to drink from the daisies without the flood of ambiguous feelings. In fact, they “cruise” while the poet aches.


  1. I think you are right equating this as a Master Poem - a Rosetta Stone - to what is constantly churning inside this Belle of Amherst - Passion. She thinks about it,and writes about it a lot, and she is frightened of it a lot.

  2. ED patterns F95, Flowers, as a Petrarchan sonnet without traditional rime.

    The opening octave’s lines 1-4 ask: Can anyone explain the ecstasy of flowers, which give such joy but demand such effort and care?. Metaphorically, ED equates flowers and poems; both require labor to create, and both give joy to receptive admirers. Lines 5-8 reword the question at a deeper level: What is the wellspring of our willingness to grow flowers (and write poems) and of our capacity to enjoy them? To the solver of this riddle, ED will give all the daisies on the hillside (and all her poems).

    The sestet’s lines 9-10 (the volta) turn from the octave’s question to ED’s explanation that flowers (and poems) evoke intense feelings that overwhelm her. The sestet closes by repeating ED’s explanation at a deeper level: Flowers (and poems) are like angels from a revolutionary paradise; they possess powers of appreciation superior to hers.

  3. I like the interpretation as the Petrarchan sonnet. However, I am still troubled by the last two lines. What is the literal aesthetic of butterflies? How is St Domingo part of that aesthetic? Is she then suggesting that her poetry’s aesthetics transcend her “conscious or analytical” aesthetic sense?

  4. I hate it when ED identifies herself as “Daisy”. What follows is an excerpt from “Wounded Deer” by Wendy K. Perriman.
    Sylvia Henneberg (in “An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia”) recognizing that “Daisy” appears in twenty-six poems written mostly around that late 1850s, comments how critics have:
    argued that because the conceit of the daisy is informed by the myth of Apollo and Clytie (in which the latter transforms into a daisy or sunflower to prove her unwavering devotion to Apollo / Sol), the daisy represents a small, submissive, weak female who faces the power and condescension of a stronger male.
    But this persona is a much more troubling choice. According to Roman mythology the daisy first appeared when “the nymph Belides escaped being raped by Vertumnus, god of orchards, by being transformed into a daisy.