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10 January 2012

By a flower – By a letter –

By a flower – By a letter –
By a nimble love –
If I weld the Rivet faster –
Final fast – above –

Never mind my breathless Anvil!
Never mind Repose!
Never mind the sooty faces
Tugging at the Forge!
                                                F163 (1860)   109

Here is someone desperate for love. The poet hopes to rivet a relationship one flower and one letter at a time. Her own love has to be nimble – no complacency or sleeping on the job as this longed-for lover is hard to get. The rivet has to be “fast” and completed “faster” than she might have hoped.
            Her “Anvil” is “breathless” from all the effort – her body is the anvil and she is panting from the exertion and desire. Foreget “Repose!” Now, though, what about the “sooty faces” that tug at her “Forge”? She is in a sort of Hell, surrounded by inner demons, but cannot stop herself. 
            The power of this poem lies in the building tension that leads to a revelation of real horror. Dickinson begins quite gently with the flower and letter and “nimble love.” The sudden introduction of the rivet is a bit jarring – it’s an industrial image contrasting with the poet’s sending a flower or letter. It has sinister overtones as if from a scene in Ring of the Nibelungs or Lord of the Rings where something is being manufactured in order to exert some sort of control.
            The second stanza introduces a manic quality. The riveter is breathless and cannot even take a break. She is driven, and the notion is underscored by the exclamation marks. The last two lines, placing the action in the underworld or a Christian Hell, have shock value even thought the poem has been leading inexorably to this point.
Nibelung re-forging Sigfried's magic
sword to regain the Ring
            The meter of the poem contributes to the descent: the three repeating trochees of “By a …” and “Never mind…” take on a breathless rhythm, reflecting the “breathless Anvil,” as if the poet is being lashed. The last line of the first stanza, “Final fast – above –,” are hammer strokes driving the rivet in. The alliterating “f”s (that link back to “faster” in the line before) have a cruel percussiveness that presages the final word, “Forge.”
            It’s a very economical poem – eight lines to get from flowers to the Anvil of the Damned! Every element works together. The question remains, though: did Dickinson write this poem with someone in mind? Sewall suggests Samuel Bowles, but we will never know for sure.


  1. You'll think I'm perseverating on speculation but I interpret the last two lines to mean that she will risk the flames of hell for a nimble love.

    1. I agree and I thank you for driving me to the dictionary.

  2. Superb reading of a complex little poem. Thank you.

  3. Our inclination is to read “fast” and “faster” as adjectives, as in quick and quicker, but the ED Lexicon reminds us they can also be adverbs, as in bound tight and bound tighter. ED’s concern is permanence of love, both here on Earth and “final” permanence in Heaven “above”.

    An “Anvil” is a heavy metal platform where a blacksmith shapes formless red-hot iron into useful shapes. It’s a perfect metaphor for the poet’s tiny writing table where she shaped formless words into fascinating poetry.

    Finally, a “Forge” is a blacksmith’s workshop, an apt metaphor for ED’s bedroom/office where she forged 1789 poems. The bane of her existence, especially early on, was her sister, Lavinia, her face smudged from tending fires, calling ED to come help in the kitchen. ED managed to broker a deal with her father that gave her mornings from 5 AM to noon off duty. His end of the bargain was to hire an Irish cook, over the objections of his wife.

  4. Somehow, Paragraph 1 vanished during Copy/Paste. Here it is:

    The ED Lexicon’s first definition of “nimble” is “agile …..; [fig.] thoughtful ……”. To my ear, three parallel phrases, “By a flower – By a letter – / By a thoughtful love – ” makes more sense and sounds better than “By a flower – By a letter –/ By an agile love – ”

  5. OOPS!~! In the confusion...... The paragraph above that begins "Our inclination..." should read,

    Our inclination is to read “fast” and “faster” as adverbs, as in quick and quicker, but the ED Lexicon reminds us they can also be adjectives, as in bound tight and bound tighter. Love is the rivet that binds two people together. ED’s concern is permanence of love, both here on Earth and “final” permanence in Heaven “above”.