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06 February 2012

If the foolish, call them "flowers" –

If the foolish, call them "flowers" –
Need the wiser, tell?
If the Savants "Classify" them
It is just as well!

Those who read the "Revelations"
Must not criticize
Those who read the same Edition –
With beclouded Eyes!

Could we stand with that Old "Moses" –
"Canaan" denied –
Scan like him, the stately landscape
On the other side –

Doubtless, we should deem superfluous
Many Sciences,
Not pursued by learned Angels
In scholastic skies!

Low amid that glad Belles lettres
Grant that we may stand,
Stars, amid profound Galaxies –
At that grand "Right hand"!
                                                            - F179 (1860)   168

Dickinson is reworking her lampooning of scholarly (vs. naturalist) science again. We saw her playful take-down of what she feels is a pinch of pretentiousness in "’Arcturus’ is his other name – ”: 
Arcturus" is his other name –
I'd rather call him "Star”!
It's very mean of Science
To go and interfere!
I pull a flower from the woods – 
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath – 
And has her in a "Class"!

In this poem she starts by contrasting nature lovers (“foolish”) who might talk about flowers in their common names or simply as “flowers” versus the botanist “Savants” who “Classify” them and assign Latinate family names such as “scrophulariaceae” or “Compositae.”  The wise, who read their scientific “Revelations” (a reference to the apocalyptic New Testament book of that name in which the Apostle John receives divine revelations of the end of earthly times), shouldn’t belittle those who can’t follow the scientific jargon.
Moses looking over
            Yet if we could see the larger picture we would know that a lot of that which passes as important scientific study is actually “superfluous” – not worthy of pursuit “by learned Angels” in their heavenly studies. The poet here imagines herself standing with the Old Testament Moses as he surveys “Caanan,”  the Promised Land, from its border (but because of an instance of unbelief was denied entry).
            As a poet she prays that she could at least stand in a lowly place – a star rather than an impressive galaxy” at the right hand of God. She is being a bit coy here, saying that she – or poetry in general – ranks low on the hierarchy of literature (“Belles letters”).
            In fact, one reading of the entire poem might be, as Dickinson scholar Ruth Miller argues (via David Preest), that it is a response to something her friend (and man she probably deeply loved) Samuel Bowles wrote in the newspaper he edited:
Now in the flower season, let us welcome the kindred flowers of poetry and romance, and never idly fancy the time is lost that is spent in their enjoyment.
Bowles lobs a fat one here to Dickinson who doesn’t miss the opportunity to nail him. No, she counters, you can call poetry “flowers” if you want. Who are we to enlighten your “beclouded” insight? If a Savant like you wants to classify poems with flowers, well go ahead!
            This reading makes better sense of the “Belles letters” reference in the last stanza. Yes, poetry might be low on the literature totem pole (and of course Dickinson as well as probably Bowles himself did not believe this for a second), but the poet would be happy to be included among the brighter literary lights at the “grand ‘Right hand’” of the Most High.


  1. Hey I love Emily Dickinson! I'm planning to do a post on this exact poem next week so I thought I'd have wee scan to see what's out there first. When I first read it a couple of years ago it captivated me a little but I found it difficult to understand. It seemed that no one had made any substantial analyses on it, apart from Emily's more well-known works. But after striving a little I finally made sense of it and find the poem very valuable. Good to see what you're doing here then! I've subscribed by email because I couldn't get the RSS to connect with my Google Reader... Oh well! At least it will still work. Keep doing what you're doing =)

    1. Thanks! It's a lot of fun -- and some of the poems are real puzzles...

    2. Excellent site Susan. I hope you are still commenting on Emily's poems. Your post on "If the foolish call them flowers" seems right on the money. Emily writes about secrets and revelations in her poetry oftimes. You might be intersted to know that the knowledge that our universe is composed of hundreds of billions of "profound galaxies" was not known until recent developments in the telescope. Until 1923 we didn't even know that there were other star systems (galaxies) than the the Milky Way system that we saw in the night sky. We thought the Milky Way was the entire Universe. In 1923 it was discovered that The Andromeda system was another similar system of stars that was an enormous distance from our own Milky Way system. So, how did Emily know about plural "profound Galaxies?" There are many other mysteries associated with Emily's poetry as well. The answers to some of them are quite surprising. I believe there will come a day when a new layer of understanding will come into view about Emily's work. I look forward to reading your other comments, I can see that you are a kindred spirit of Emily. Thanks.

      Edmund Roache MD

  2. ED herself sometime called her poems her flowers, though, Here's from the dictionary ther ED used.

    galaxy (galaxies), n. [Fr.]
    World; universe; Milky Way; cluster of solar systems; system of celestial bodies in outer space; conglomeration of stars, moons, asteroids, comets, and planets in space

    1. Yes, you're right. Maybe she is riffing on Bowles.

  3. We have no evidence that ED “deeply loved” Sam Bowles. Rather, computer analysis of word choice in the five letters from ED to Bowles during the years 1858–1863 showed that “the unique word categories found in her correspondence with Bowles during that time do not suggest intimacy at all. Instead, they reveal a pattern that might be expected between friends (equal), but also a more formal, advisory nature (legal, guide, follow, action), one in keeping with that patriarchal era in New England” (McDermott 2000).

    We do know that ED and Bowles enjoyed lively repartee, but this poem seems a simple plea by ED that literati consider poetry an equal among the belles-lettres.

    McDermott, John F, 2000, Biography (Honolulu), Vol.23 (3), p.524-533

    My interpretation of “If the foolish, call them flowers”:

    If ordinary people call them flowers
    Do experts need to correct them?
    If academics classify flowers
    What harm does it do?

    Biblical experts who read Revelations
    Need not criticize
    Laymen who read the same book
    With simplistic interpretations

    If we could stand at the gates of heaven
    Unable to enter
    We could scan the beauty
    On the other side of the fence.

    No doubt we would see how useless
    Much of Science is;
    Angels in heaven don’t study science
    With other angelic scholars!

    We poets rank low among literati
    But let us remain in their midst,
    Points of light amid galaxies
    Created by some grand force.