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22 June 2012

Over the fence –

Over the fence –
Strawberries – grow –
Over the fence –
I could climb – if I tried, I know –
Berries are nice!

But – if I stained my Apron –
God would certainly scold!
Oh, dear, – I guess if He were a Boy –
He'd – climb – if He could!
                                                            F271 (1861)  251

Strawberries here are clearly forbidden fruit. And of course they’re over the fence. The temptation lies in how easily the fence might be climbed.
            The poem’s diction is that of an eager young lad. “Berries are nice!” Some readers of this poem feel that the persona of a boy plus the yummy forbidden strawberries make this a love poem about Dickinson’s friend and sister-in-law, Sue. If so, this wouldn’t be the first of Dickinson’s poems that hint at the strong feelings she had for Sue: love, frustration, hurt, desire, bitterness – to name a few. But this poem is about forbidden desire. As a “Boy” Dickinson’s desire for Sue would be more acceptable. As it is, Sue’s “Strawberries” must be off limits.
Who wouldn't want these delicious berries??
Virginia Granberry, 1831-1921

            Be that as it may, we can enjoy this poem on its own merits without worrying about the biographical context, if any. Berries are nice.
            God doesn’t come out altogether well in the poem. First, he would scold the berry picker about a stained apron. That’s like saying, Hey, I don’t care about your stealing those strawberries, but no way are you going to get away with getting berry stains! “Oh, dear,” the poet smirks: he’d go after the strawberries himself if he were younger and not, um, God.
            The poem begins by emphasizing the fence. Something desirable is on the other side of it. Boys would be daring enough to take it, but our narrator, not a boy, is perhaps a bit too timid. Although she could climb the fence we don’t get the feeling that she will. Strawberries may be nice, but they leave a stain. 


  1. Love this! Great job on the analysis and thank you for sharing one of my favorite Dickinson poems,

  2. Yes, God might scold, but when ED turned her back, “I guess if He were a Boy –/ He'd – climb – if He could!” Call it sacrilegious if you will, her friends certainly would, but I love ED’s personification of God.

    About that “fence”, don’t forget that “”One Sister have I in our house, / And one, a hedge away.”

  3. Yes, God and Amherst would scold ED about “berry stains” on her apron. Amherst might resign itself to an extramarital affair between a college professor’s wife, Mabel Todd, and a leading lawyer, Austin Dickinson, but a homosexual affair between that lawyer’s wife and his sister would destroy his family and career. Strawberries on the other side looked luscious, but their price was too high. ED had betrothed herself to poetry, and that promise she wasn’t willing to break.