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26 January 2012

Except to Heaven, she is nought.

Except to Heaven, she is nought.
Except for Angels – lone.
Except to some wide-wandering Bee
A flower superfluous blown.

Except for winds – provincial.
Except by Butterflies
Unnoticed as a single dew
That on the Acre lies.

The smallest Housewife in the grass,
Yet take her from the Lawn
And somebody has lost the face
That made Existence – Home!
                                                -F173 (1860)  154

Oh the humble little daisy or dandelion – so easily overlooked or, even if noticed, disregarded as unimportant. Heaven sees her as something, though, and Angels. And on an earthly basis, Dickinson’s triumvirate of Birds, Breeze, and Butterflies appreciate her.
            Like a housewife, she sets up a little home. Her leaves provide shade and even food to snail and grasshopper. Her nectar is sought after by bees and butterflies. Even winds, those widely-traveled cosmopolitan gentlemen, stop by for a visit.
A lonely dandelion
            Dickinson loved daisies and dandelions so it makes sense that she writes about the little meadow flowers here. But she may also be thinking of herself. As primary caretaker of her mother, as the baker of the house, she was the one who made the family house home. Yet she was just a tiny thing and fancied herself a little humble flower. She even refers to herself in poems and letters as Daisy.
            The poem is written in common ballad or hymn form. The first stanza shows us that the little flower isn’t one among a throng. Instead, she was by herself, and only a “wide-ranging” bee could discover. She would be alone if not for Angels. On the assumption that the flower is standing in for the poet herself, we might read this as Dickinson recognizing that she is alone and only Heaven, angels, and some particularly astute and discerning individual will recognize her value. Common folk won’t. And that was true for Dickinson (at least as far as the discerning individuals were concerned). Her poetry wasn’t for everyone in in her day. She had given up on fame and fortune and being widely published.
            The last stanza tries to make the best of things. Sure the flower is never going to be widely admired or even noticed, but it is critical to someone’s happiness. If she were to truly disappear, the town / family would be much worse off.


  1. Susan,

    I saw this as a proto-feminist manifesto of sorts, she is describing the then and now overlooked and marginalized millions (billions now) of women -- taken for granted, domestic prisoners by and large. The unsung who, if they are ever appreciated, will have to be dead.

    I don't ascribe banners and marching boots to Emily, but she certainly "gets" the woman's position in the world at large.

    Thank you for your lovely blog.


    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree! Re-reading it, I think she is writing about more women than herself -- and definitely about women.

    2. Yes! I thought of that too... I was picturing all those women in 19th century -- Emily herself also -- as little dandelions invisible all along the fields... Nice current piece too!

  2. This poem seems to me related to ‘I lost a world’, in particular the line ‘somebody lost her face’. The face of a daisy is ‘a row of stars around the forehead’. In both poems the lose is not noticeable by all.
    Thanks for the blog, it’s an eye opener for me.

  3. ED told us in ‘Glowing is her Bonnet’ (F109, 1859) that when she dies she would prefer to vanish as a person, unmissed save by tearful rill and loving sunrise, but she hopes her poetry will live on, enriching lives of unnumbered readers.

    “Better as the Daisy
    From the Summer hill
    Vanish unrecorded
    Save by tearful rill—

    “Save by loving sunrise
    Looking for her face.
    Save by feet unnumbered
    Pausing at the place.”

    Now, a year later, in ‘Except to Heaven, she is nought’ (F173, 1860), she repeats herself beautifully, this time with self-assurance that when she dies, her physical body may be missed only by heaven, angels, bees, winds, and butterflies, but her immortal poetry will encourage us, her readers, to love our house, Earth, as our home.