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31 January 2012

As if some little Arctic flower

As if some little Arctic flower
Upon the polar hem –
Went wandering down the Latitudes
Until it puzzled came
To continents of summer –
To firmaments of sun –
To strange, bright crowds of flowers –
And birds, of foreign tongue!
I say, As if this little flower
To Eden, wandered in –
What then? Why nothing,
Only, your inference therefrom!
                                                            - F177 (1860)

I sent this poem to my husband who has gone to the Arctic and been involved in the effects of global warming on vegetation. And if the Arctic does (granted global warming) become decked with fields of flowers inching up from more southern latitudes – complete with birds – “What then?” Well, only “your inference therefrom!” Make of it what you will, in other words.

            But I’m pretty sure Dickinson wasn’t referring to climate change but rather to the idea of a modest little  poet, a very reclusive one not known for overt Christian piety (despite the fundamentalist revival occurring in her village during her life). She preferred a more quiet spirituality that took its most inspired shape from nature – much as John Muir did. Chancing upon Eden, which is how Dickinson often refers to Heaven, after the delights of her own private garden, the poet/flower would be "puzzled." Not awed or ecstatic or surprised, just puzzled as if there is a continuum between heaven and earth. Definitely not Christian theology. 
            What would happen? “Why nothing,” the poet says in a little surgical dig at those who would be surprised to see this particular little flower wander in. It would be right as rain, completely unremarkable. Except, she adds, for what some fictive gossipy “you” would make out of it. Perhaps the “you” would infer that the narrator had been a more orthodox believer than previously thought. Perhaps you might infer that some heavenly clerk made an error. But maybe, just maybe "you" would infer that all those sermons and all those strictures so tightly adhered to were, um, unnecessary.
      I like the colorful image of "continents of summer" lit by "firmaments of sun" and crowded with flowers and birds. What makes it particularly nice – much nicer than the heaven of previous poems where Dickinson scavenges the traditional images of  hosts of angels on golden streets – is that a little reclusive rogue like Emily Dickinson might just wander in.


  1. I just discovered your blog. Thank you for your effort. I have just started my journey with poetry. It's something I always wanted to read but instead of postponing it to the proverbial 'someday', decided to just jump into it. And Emily Dickinson is the first poet I'm reading. Her poems are small and not that intimidating and your interpretation and insight is helping. Perhaps, I could offer an alternate explanation ?

    Maybe it's a comment on a culture that is obsessed with achievement and success. The little Arctic flower is perfectly content in it's native polar hem ... But primed by society's constant and aggressive pursuit of success and adventure, begins a journey to wander through the latitudes even though it may not be what he wanted. Suddenly, in the blind trail of success, the flower finds himself puzzled in a foreign land. I think your insight about not just what is said, but also of what is not said is important here. The flower is not ecstatic, not awed, not exuberant ... Merely puzzled. Eden may be the promised land ... That mythical place where we're supposed to be fulfilled at finally having reached our goals, even though they might never have been our's to begin with. When the poet eagerly asks the Arctic flower how the promised land feels, the flower anti-climatically replies only what one makes of it.

    To me, it's a statement to examine life and see if our goals are really ours and if Eden is indeed what we want or if we want to venture into the 'continents of summer' at all when we'd be happier in our 'polar hem'.

    1. You make an important point about examining life and goals. Even if we do attain the Eden of our dreams... so what? It's what you make of it. Dickinson's life is a great example of that. She's the recluse with the cosmic interior.

  2. polar hem is a great description,, maybe it is paradoxical or polar opposite, in that the little Artic flower wanders into the alleged Eden, but one might infer that those in the alleged Eden, just seen the real Eden wander in.
    Also, I'm not sure what was taught in Emily's time, but I have heard of a "Heaven on Earth" being created literally here on Earth-after a certain period, so her nature based heaven has merit. Emily is amazing. The polar hem and cosmic interior are neat words.

  3. the phrase Heaven on Earth popped into my head as well

    I have just begun to read poetry and also chose Emily Dickinson as my first- mostly because she is a woman and hails from my home state

  4. Both SK’s explication and readers’ comments display amazing insight, learning at its finest.

    The slant rhyme of “tongue” and “therefrom” is intentional, wouldn’t you say, Susan K?

    1. Now that you mention it, yes. And it helps explain the use of that clunky 'therefrom'.

  5. Miracles, that is, supernatural events that cannot be explained by physical evidence in the physical world, form the basis of virtually all religions, both primitive and modern. Given the date, place, and predominant beliefs of ED’s Amherst, what she says in the last four lines of this poem is absolutely astonishing:

    "I say, As if this little flower
    To Eden, wandered in –
    What then? Why nothing,
    Only, your inference therefrom!"

    These lines are astonishing for two reasons:

    First, if a knowledgeable botanist found an Arctic flower growing in Amherst, MA, in 1860, she could be 99.999999999% certain it did not migrate there on its own, and any reasoning person would agree with her.

    Second, if by some chance an Arctic flower had shown up in Amherst, “What then?” ED’s answer, “Why nothing.” Full stop. Then she adds, “Only your inference therefrom!” Exclamation point! With this closing line, ED rewords a modern, scientific tenent: “You can believe whatever you want, but I’m withholding judgement until I have compelling physical evidence that flower got to Amherst on its own.”

    Susan K’s closing sentence elevates her explication from a flower to a poet, and beyond: If we did not have compelling physical evidence, such as this poem, that ED actually existed as a real person in Amherst during the mid-19th century, we might believe she was the Daughter of God, given to us so that we might have everlasting pleasure from her poetry. Her poems, all 1,789 of them, might become our bible.