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05 August 2012

Kill your Balm—and its Odors bless you—

Kill your Balm—and its Odors bless you—
Bare your Jessamine—to the storm—
And she will fling her maddest perfume—
Haply—your Summer night to Charm—

Stab the Bird—that built in your bosom—
Oh, could you catch her last Refrain—
Bubble! "forgive"—"Some better"—Bubble!
"Carol for Him—when I am gone"!
                                                                        F 309 (1862)  238

The poem begins in a solemn paradox: The beautiful fragrance of soothing balms comes from plants killed for that purpose. Jasmine, whose flowers are among the most fragrant, will “fling her  maddest perfume” after being stripped and pressed.

Dickinson continues with this idea in the very powerful “Essential Oils—are wrung” poem she wrote in 1863:
Essential Oils—are wrung—
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns—alone—
It is the gift of Screws— 
                                               F 772 (1863)  675

In one of the most dramatic contrasts in any of her poems so far, Dickinson follows the rather quaint line “Haply—your Summer night to Charm—” with Stab the Bird…” The “Charm” followed by “Stab” is brutal. The brutality is subtly reinforced by the alliterative “b” sounds: stab, Bird, built, bosom; and then later in that stanza the repeated “Bubble!”
            It’s a bitter poem, overflowing with pathos. The poet is the Balm, the Jessamine, and the stabbed Bird nesting in her lover's heart. She is telling her lover that even though he has or is killing her she will still fling her love at him hoping that it will “Charm” him on summer nights. She claims that her “last Refrain” as a dying bird will be to bubble “forgive,” that he will find someone better who may sing for him after she is gone. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of this poem—talk about guilt trips!
            The poem recalls Alexander Pope’s line (if memory serves as Google has not) about “the bird that presses its breast against a thorn to sing.” Love, balm, and song may find their most lyrical and passionate expression under intense pain.


  1. Could it just be the memory of her will be "some better" version of her that sings for him after her death?

  2. This poem is worth comparing to the later "Split the Lark" poem. Both have that forceful, even violent, trochaic emphasis. Split the lark. Stab the bird. Both are full of trochaic substitutions for iambs.

    And that balm/bubble sound shows up in this later poem as bulb. (I thought bulb probably referred to the ringer in a bell "bulb after bulb in silver rolled", but after reading this poem, maybe it is more referring to a bulbous sound, a bubbling up of notes, from the bird. You also think of internal organs. And flower bulbs. Amazing word choice.)

    Also, it just now occurs to me that sceptic Thomas could be Higginson himself, who did seem to doubt her musicality. I had always just thought of it as a way of saying "doubting Thomas" but in keeping with the sound play of "scarlet", making it more "musical".

    Split the Lark — and you'll find the Music —
    Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled —
    Scantilly dealt to the Summer Morning
    Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

    Loose the Flood — you shall find it patent —
    Gush after Gush, reserved for you —
    Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
    Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?