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10 October 2012

I dreaded that first Robin, so,

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I'm accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though—

I thought If I could only live
Till that first Shout got by—
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me—

I dared not meet the Daffodils—
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own—

I wished the Grass would hurry—
So when 'twas time to see—
He'd be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me—

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they'd stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They're here, though; not a creature failed—
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me—
The Queen of Calvary—

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums –
                                                            F347 (1862)  348

Dickinson used robins as a synonym for spring in various poems in previous years. She sometimes calls them her troubadors. Here she says, ironically, that she dreads the first robin. She doesn’t want to see the yellow daffodils or hear the bees. She doesn’t want to see spring blossoms, either. She wishes, instead, that the grass would hurry up and grow tall enough to hide the flowers. Talk about depression! Her emotional state seems beyond depression, however. Birdsong in the woods might “mangle” her. The cheery yellow gowns of the daffodils would “pierce” her. She is in real physical danger from what would normally delight her.
She also refers to herself as “Queen of Calvary”—the queen of suffering and sacrifice. She has taken such a title before: In “Title divine, is mine” she is the “Empress of Calvary” who suffers because her love and passion will not be consummated during her earthly life.
            In this poem, though, the speaker’s suffering seems to stem from a more existential angst. Spring is no longer a joyful rebirth, a symbol of Resurrection or life after death. Instead it is a reminder of death. The first robin comes, but he may not be last season’s robin. For all the joy of spring there is the cold death of winter. And so as spring parades past her—robins, daffodils, bees, and blossoms—the poet waves her “childish Plumes” at them “in bereaved acknowledgment” of the cycle of life and death. It’s a march here, rather than a dance. Spring “salutes” her as they keep in time to the “unthinking” drums of time.
            Dickinson’s plumes would be a bunch of ostrich feathers. These were sometimes worn as ornaments and symbol of wealth or rank, but they were also carried as a sign of grief in funerals. The parade of spring becomes a funeral procession.
            For all its depression, however, I sense a tender love. The spring garden and its creatures hurts because the poet, no longer a child, realizes that the new life is ephemeral. It is a very personal relationship. The creatures present themselves to her much as in Eden the first animals presented themselves to Adam to be named. Adam didn’t have the knowledge of death. That came only with the Fall. Dickinson is living in a Fallen world and so sees death behind the bright new fa├žade of spring life.
            The poem is written in ballad or hymn form: quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Dickinson is quite regular in her meter in this poem, in keeping with the sense of a march or procession. The slant rhyme pair in the last quatrain of “Plumes” and “Drums” is particularly poignant. We are left with the sense of the Circle of Death rather than the Circle of Life.


  1. I hear strands of ED's relationship with her own poetry in this poem, that creation also pierces her and so vulnerable she seems here, creating almost rips her up.

  2. That's an excellent way to look at it, Anonymous. Each element of Spring is a poem, each poem a small death . . . the plumes she waves are her poems . . . It's a viewpoint worth thinking about.

  3. It reflects her confusion as to how she should view spring - as the beginning or as the beginning of the end.

  4. I think of this poem whenever my springtime allergies kick in. :)

  5. It's an unusual take on the coming of nature, which usually makes people happy. Emily however, at least here in this poem, feels overwhelmed by nature's profusion and beauty in her singular life as a sufferer like Christ, only female, as the Queen of Calvary. I don't think she felt this way all the time. She is singular, has not brought forth life in abundance as nature does, and the contrast mangles her, in the moment of the poem at least. No children for her. I suspect this moment will pass and in other moments the coming of the spring and life will delight her.

    1. Your mention of children helped me to see the poem in a new light. It is a melancholy acknowledgement of birth, growth, decay, and death – and Dickinson watches the new flowers in a mood that many a parent has had watching their wee children with the knowledge that every beginning life has an end.

  6. April is the cruelest month...

  7. Could spring possibly be an extended metaphor for her relationship with religion? She capitalizes He and Him in a way that is reminiscent of the capitalization in biblical literature. She also uses "pierce" - the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross, "Calvary" - the hill of the crucifix, and "unthinking Drums" - which follows her rejection of the mindless followers of the church (Drums in a service also seen in I Felt a Funeral in my Brain).

    I feel that this would definitely make sense for Dickinson especially because of her historical rejection of the church and her other poems. Any insight?

    1. I see what you mean, but I don't see a way to fit the last two stanzas in with that reading. Thanks for pointing out the 'pierce'.

      Re-reading this poem I don't know why I saw her as depressed. It seems playful and poignant to me now -- like a teacher with a new class coming in -- but more intense.

  8. It seem to me that the most interesting element of the poem is the way ED refers her own poetry, calling it "childish", reflecting the child-like meter of the ballad form. It also seems to me that she is utterly depressed - no, beyond depression.

  9. Maybe this is too optimistic, but it see the poem not as an expression of depression but of the “beauty hurts” theme. It reminded me of this stanza from Millay’s poem “God’s World,” about the beauty of autumn:

    Long have I known a glory in it all,
    But never knew I this;
    Here such a passion is
    As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
    Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
    My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
    No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

    1. Thanks for the Millay poem -- I absolutely see a resonance. When I was writing about this poem I was being very watchful for depression having read a scholar (can't remember who) who was interpreting quite a few ED poems through this lens.

      Revisiting these poems always makes me wish I hadn't been so influenced. There's almost always a much better -- deeper, more nuanced -- way of reading them. I think you have the right of it.

    2. Thanks for this. I'm not sure I'm right, but at least it's a possibility. These poems are such a Rorschach Test sometimes! For example, Helen Vendler reads Dickinson's agonized, God-doubting poems as expressions of atheism, whereas I read them as the Job-like struggle of a genuine believer.

  10. The last stanza suggests to me mourning rather than depression. It can be hard to take others’ happiness and optimism after suffering a loss although the poet has managed to get accustomed to the robin even if it still hurts a little. Spring, however, carries on regardless and “unthinking” and she cannot help but acknowledge it. A message of comfort and optimism to the wearer of the “childish Plumes”.

  11. Comments by Susan K, “Talk about depression!”, and Steve Capra, “she is utterly depressed - no, beyond depression”, are correct; at times her poems and letters are suicidal (F243, summer 1861; L261, April 25, 1862).

    In his Work Metadata for this poem, Johnson (1958) nails the reason for ED’s depression: “On 11 January 1862, the Daily News of Philadelphia reported Charles Wadsworth's call to Calvary Church in San Francisco, where he arrived on 28 May.”

    ED, fighting depression, wasted no time lining up a replacement for Wadsworth, at least as a mentor. Despite his busy schedule, Thomas Higginson responded immediately to ED’s first letter (L260, April 15, 1862). He was a monthly essayist for The Atlantic, a retired Unitarian minister, and a soon-to-be Union Army commander of a company of freedmen.

    Later, ED told him, “You were not aware that you saved my Life” [by responding so quickly to her first letter.] (L330, 1869).
    He stuck with her for the rest of her life and posthumously coedited the first two volumes of her collected poetry (with Mabel Todd, 1890 & 1891).