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21 November 2011

Did the Harebell loose her girdle

Did the Harebell loose her girdle
To the lover Bee
Would the Bee the Harebell hallow
Much as formerly?

Did the "Paradise"—persuaded—
Yield her moat of pearl—
Would the Eden be an Eden,
Or the Earl—an Earl?
                                                    - F 134 (1860)  213
Did this harebell ask for it??

A delightful proto-feminist poem, Dickinson is wondering why there are sexual double standards for men versus women. The lovely harebell has perhaps loosened her girdle (“belt” we would say today) to that rogue lover Bee (lucky insect – he gets to stand in for God sometimes, too). The Big Question is: Will he still respect her in the morning? Dickinson selects the word “hallow” – even italicizing it for emphasis to show she really means it – to suggest a religious aspect. Marriage is a sacrament, but just a bit of fun between bees and flowers… well, maybe the Bee is right not to feel that hallow feeling. Except the reader senses this is wrong. The Bee would be quite foolish, as well as stupefyingly arrogant to feel anything other than yummy delight at the Harebell’s delicious, life-giving nectar.
            But just in case the reader is too thick skulled to follow the metaphor, the poet then moves us closer to the realm of ordinary men and women. “Paradise” is of course a way of referring to that blissful refuge men might find beyond the “moat of pearl” when making love. Here the lover is an Earl (helpfully rhyming with “pearl” or else he might have been a king) and if he had successfully “persuaded” his lady love to “yield” to him, the poet wants to know if Paradise / Eden would still be the same. Or would it become, say, Paradise Lost? Or worse, the lady just some now used-goods fallen woman. But the Earl – would he, too, undergo degradation? Dickinson doesn’t even bother to answer that last question. Yes, the Earl will still be an Earl no matter how many virgins he deflowers.
            The poem is a very playful and clever way of pointing out this inequity that still bedevils much of the world – and in some countries can be a life-and-death  matter.
            The poem also is fun to read aloud – it just trips off the tongue. The “Did the” and “Would the” doublings strengthen the metaphor and give a nursery-rhyme feel to this adult-content poem. The rhymes are fun: Bee / formerly; and pearl / Earl. The four 4-letter-word "e"s of the last two lines not only link together visually, but showcase Dickinson's gift for compaction. In both lines she uses the E word first as a specific and then as a general case. Would the Eden of this blossom still be in the category of unsullied Paradise? Would this particular Earl still belong in the category of princely nobility denoted by "Earl"?


  1. Seems to me this can also be read much more broadly. The first stanza gives us sexual imagery--"loose her girdle," "lover," the Bee entering the flower--but "Paradise" in the second stanza gives us the option of looking beyond sex to any deeply desired thing. Does the having of it ever measure up to the longing for it? She returns to this idea in (984) "Satisfaction - is the Agent," and says no: "To possess, is past the instant/ We achieve the Joy."

    1. Thank you, Carrie. I think you're right. I was having too much fun with the poem...

  2. I did not know how to contact you other than posting a comment -- and I just wanted to alert you to a missing word so that you could make the correction (so perhaps you can delete this comment later). Anyway, on this poem above, you say, "Yes, the Earl will still be an Earl no how many virgins he deflowers" -- and I suspect you meant to say "no MATTER how many." I make this comment only to be helpful. Please feel free to delete this after you receive the information.

    1. Thank you, unknown. I love to get corrections like this. It helps me improve the blog and also shows me people are reading the commentary!

  3. I think typos have always been about a mind racing faster than our inner editor, and let us allow an outer editor to sample our own never seen flowers. Thank goodness for all (good) editors!

  4. I wonder if the girdle, harebell and bee also allude to Hippolyta’a girdle and the multiple contradicting stories about Heracles/Theseus and Hippolyta.

  5. Maybe a tip of the hat -- but to me the poem seems more generalized. Also, I don't see any disparagement of Hippolyta for her relationship with Hercules...
    I do thank you for the incentive to revisit the old myths -- especially since I'm about to go to the theater for the first time since Covid to see my 13th production of Midsummer Night's Dream!

  6. “Der liebe Gott steckt im detail" is an old German proverb that translates as 'God is in the detail'. In his inimitable way, Frederick Nietzsche reworded the proverb “Der Teufel steckt im Detail”, which translates “the devil is in the details”. In either case, ED’s ‘Did the Harebell loose her girdle’, which Susan K so admirably explicated above, becomes less amusing when we learn details that reveal the likely identity of the “Bee”:

    1. Franklin dates this poem as “the second half of 1860”

    2. ED copied neither this poem (F134) nor the preceding F133, ‘Mute – thy Coronation —' into her fascicles even though she copied other poems of this vintage into fascicles.

    3. A chronological timeline places this poem at a critical and vulnerable interval of ED’s life:

    1855 March 4 – ED, age 24, meets
    and falls in love with Rev. Wadsworth, age 40, in Philadelphia (Johnson 1955;

    1860 March – Rev. Charles Wadsworth visits ED in Amherst.

    1860 “Second half” (Franklin) - ED composes ‘Mute — thy Coronation (F133)’

    1860 “Second half” (Franklin) - ED composes ‘Did the harebell loose her girdle (F134)’

    1861 Early - ED drafts the second surviving "Master" letter

    1861 Summer - ED drafts the third surviving "Master" letter

    4. Reverend Wadsworth (1814-1882) was a charismatic Presbyterian pastor at a large church in Philadelphia. He was 16 years older than ED, married and had two children.

    5. Given the chronological timeline, Wadsworth was probably the intended recipient of the three “Master Letters” and the protagonist of F133 and F134.

    6. Reverend Wadsworth’s response to one ED’s letters shows deep concern for her mental and emotional condition:

    “My Dear Miss Dickenson [sic]

    “I am distressed beyond measure at your note, received this moment, - I can only imagine the affliction which has befallen, or is now befalling you.

    “Believe me, be what it may, you have all my sympathy, and my constant, earnest prayers.

    “I am very, very anxious to learn more definitely of your trial- and though I have no right to intrude upon your sorrow yet I beg you to write me, though it be but a word.

    “In great haste
    Sincerely and most
    Affectionately Yours –“

    The manuscript is unsigned and without date, but is in the handwriting of the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, with an embossed crest, “C.W.”