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18 November 2011

Tho' my destiny be Fustian –

Tho' my destiny be Fustian – 
Hers be damask fine – 
Tho' she wear a silver apron – 
I, a less divine – 

Still, my little Gypsy being
I would far prefer,
Still, my little sunburnt bosom
To her Rosier,

For, when Frosts, their punctual fingers
On her forehead lay,
You and I, and Dr. Holland,
Bloom Eternally!

Roses of a steadfast summer
In a steadfast land,
Where no Autumn lifts her pencil – 
And no Reapers stand!
                                                       - F131 (1860)  163

This seems to be Emily being a bit catty. The subject is unknown, but is a woman who wears beautiful fabrics and a “silver apron” and has a lovely rosy bosom. The poet contrasts this to her “Fustian” or coarse-cloth clothes, her outdoorsy tan (not fashionable in that day), and her “little Gypsy being” that implies her more carefree and original nature compared to the conventional lady. The poem is obviously intended for her dear friends Elizabeth and Josiah Holland. Dr. Holland, himself a poet, was an editor for The Springfield Republican newspaper.
            In the third and fourth stanzas Emily includes her friends with her as having enduring qualities, probably literary. I imagine the object of mild scorn here was a poet, perhaps a society lady who gave a poetry reading the Hollands and the Dickinsons attended (and I’m just speculating). While her verse will die when the “punctual fingers” of deathly frost extinguish her, the poetry of Dickinson and Holland (she probably includes Elizabeth out of courtesy) will endure, indeed “Bloom Eternally!” In fact they will be “Roses” constantly in summer bloom as opposed to an Autumn poet who is sure to perish by winter. 


  1. I wonder who she considers an Autumn poet, and what poets she read and were influenced by?

  2. The hypothesis that ED is being a bit catty or casts mild scorn on another poet in a letter to her kind and affectionate older friend, Elizabeth Holland, seems unlikely to me. The Hollands, who lived a full day’s travel from Amherst (40 miles) and rarely visited ED and probably didn’t attend a society lady’s poetry reading with her. While Dr. Holland did write some poems, he was most famous for his novels and a biography of Abraham Lincoln, written a year after the assassination. To my knowledge, Mrs. Holland wasn’t a poet.

    The Emily Dickinson Museum’s website tells us that “Although she occasionally sent Mrs. Holland poems, Dickinson does not seem to have considered Mrs. Holland a confidante for that aspect of her life. Instead, the two exchanged plants — “Yours was my first arbutus. ….. I will send you the first witch hazel” — …… Dickinson also turned to Mrs. Holland for help with deeply personal issues, such as embarrassment over a social faux pas …... For Dickinson, the friendship with Mrs. Holland provided stability and reassurance throughout her adult years.” (

  3. Johnson (1955, Manuscript metadata) tells us that “This poem, which may have accompanied the gift of a rose, evidently was sent to Dr. and Mrs. Holland”. Franklin (1998) adds that there were “Two [copies], one lost, [that were composed] about 1860 and 1861. The lost manuscript [was] sent to Elizabeth Holland about late summer 1860”.

    The poem at first seems rudely critical of another poet, but that would be uncharacteristic of ED. Maybe she intended the poem to speak from the perspective of her floristic alter ego, a fustian daisy who’s a bit jealous of a damask rose. Stay with me here. Let’s go Johnson one better and imagine that ED included both a rose and a daisy in her letter to make sure Elizabeth got the poem’s import. Here’s an alter interpretation that may help demystify an understandable misunderstanding:

    Although I’m a common daisy and she’s a damask rose, and she wears gorgeous petals while I wear simple white, I much prefer my little sunburnt blossoms to her crimson ones. When killing frosts have laid her beauty low, our letters and poems will bloom eternally. They will keep their freshness forever in a steadfast land where frost can’t stop our pencils and death cannot defeat us.

    1. Well, maybe. But Dickinson in several poems does make wry (perhaps 'catty' is too strong) remarks contrasting overly-mannered performers and poets with more down-to-earth artists/writers. Off hand, I think of "I cannot dance upon my Toes" (Fr 381).