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06 May 2012

The Robin's my Criterion for Tune –

The Robin's my Criterion for Tune – 
Because I grow – where Robins do – 
But, were I Cuckoo born – 
I'd swear by him – 
The ode familiar – rules the Noon – 
The Buttercup's, my Whim for Bloom – 
Because, we're Orchard sprung – 
But, were I Britain born,
I'd Daisies spurn – 

None but the Nut – October fit – 
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit – I'm taught – 
Without the Snow's Tableau
Winter, were lie – to me – 
Because I see – New Englandly – 
The Queen, discerns like me – 
Provincially –
                                                                                              F256 (1861)  284

You see the line “Because I see – New Englandly” pop up from time to time in discussions of Dickinson or other New Englanders or modified to suit whomever’s personal vantage point is in question. It’s a great line! I think the poem is brimming over with good lines, though. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite.
Even though she became
a queen, little Victoria
would have been shaped
by her English countryside
            The central insight is more profound than the light treatment indicates on a quick read. We are all probably much more products of our formative geographies than we think. Some of us are “Orchard sprung” and so urban environments will never feel completely natural. We grow up with robins or cacti or bougainvillea – or subways, boom boxes, and house sparrows. Our brains form in response to what we see around us at an early age. Even the Queen herself does not discern life on the grand scale befitting a monarch. She, too, thinks of snowfall on the palace grounds in winter, of foxes darting across the woods, of the song thrush and nightingale. Did she love the fox and hate the fox hunt – or vice versa? Would that affect her impulses as a queen?
            There is nice concision in the beginning of the second stanza. The Nut (walnut or acorn or other nut – doesn’t matter) comes with October, the month when in New England trees drop their nuts. And this, the poet says, contains all the seasons: Autumn when the nuts fall; winter as they get buried by an enterprising squirrel or crow, spring as they send forth a new shoot, and summer as the plant grows and matures, sending out its leaves.
            The poem has many internal rhymes and assonances as well as end rhymes and slant rhymes that provide a nice flow and a rich sound. Some examples:
-   Robin / Criterion / Tune all end on an ‘n’ and have other nice resonances;
-   Cuckoo of line 3 rhymes with itself and with “do” from the previous line.
-   There’s a nice spate of alliterative ‘b’s in the second half of the first stanza: Buttercup, Bloom, Because, Britain, born
-   “None but the Nut” is nice in assonance and alliteration
-   A spate of ‘t’s trip through the second stanza: Nut, October, fit, it, flit, taught, Tableau, Winter, to.
- There are various end rhymes and slant rhymes, but a favorite is New Englandly with Provincially. What fun!

Content-wise, the poem’s two stanzas treat first the particular plants and animals the represent home to the poet, and in the second, the seasons. The last three lines summarize the theme. "Provincially" belongs with the previous line, but Dickinson emphasizes it by placing it alone at the very end. The Queen is as part of her formative environments as is the poet. There's a bit of play in the word. The Queen has her provinces and colonies. When she sees "provincially" she is also seeing her domains. The implied corollary is that Dickinson has her own provinces and domains, too. Indeed, her gardens, woods, and orchard provide her with a rich world that her readers are still exploring.


  1. What about the lines:
    But, were I Britain born,
    I'd Daisies spurn –
    Even if ED called herself 'Daisy', aren't daisies 'prototypically' British? Doesn't ED prepare here the ground for the final opposition between her own and the British (colonial) 'provinciality'?

    1. That's a good point about daisies being a rather quintessential English flower. Perhaps I skipped over the line because of the resultant difficulty. I don't remember. Anyway, I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on that.

    2. I would go for a 'political' reading: ED's 'New Englandly' provincialism is opposed here to 'Englandly' rule over foreing provinces (colonialism). Then the punchline about the Queen is not only a pun (you point out) but an ironic comment.

      This, I guess, would be congruent not only with the lines I quoted about being 'British born' and spurning domestic daisies, but also (as I see now) with the first opposition:
      But, were I Cuckoo born –
      I'd swear by him –
      Isn't Cuckoo a good emblem of colonialism?

      I believe such a 'deconstructive' reading - as far as the mood is concerned - may be also applied to another poem in which an unnamed Robin appears (F 359). More in a moment - and thanks, Susan, for you perceptive and inspiring blog! Andrzej (from Cracow)

  2. Line 1: Robin (Turdus migratotius), native to North America.

    Line 3: European Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). She probably didn’t know two species of American cuckoo breed in Massachusetts, Black-billed and Yellow-billed.

    Line 5: The tune is probably ‘Rule, Brittania!’

    Line 16: The Queen is Victoria, who reigned 1837-1901. Her “Province”, the British Empire, sided with the Confederacy because they needed Confederate cotton for their factories. The US Civil War was raging, which is why ED says the Queen discerns “Provincially”.