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22 October 2012

If you were coming in the Fall

If you were coming in the Fall,
I'd brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I'd wind the months in balls—
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,
I'd count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers dropped
Into Van Dieman's Land.

If certain, when this life was out—
That yours and mine, should be—
I'd toss it yonder, like a Rind,
And take Eternity—

But, now, uncertain of the length
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—
That will not state—its sting.
                                                                  F356 (1862) 511

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but if we don’t’ know when our friend or lover is coming back, then it can also make us very anxious. That’s what the poet describes here: the speaker wants nothing more than to be reunited with her loved one and would be willing to wait however long it took. Instead, she is “uncertain of the length” of time she’ll need to wait and the uncertainty “goads” her unmercifully, as if a “Goblin Bee” were always hovering over her with a giant stinger.
                  Dickinson organizes the poem from the shortest period to the longest. If the beloved were to come in autumn, then summer would drag by, but she could deal with it as easily as a housewife does a fly. Just brush that summer off. Next, the lover might not come for a year. Still, the speaker would just compartmentalize each month as if it were a ball of wool. Each would go in its own drawer to be unwound separately, and that would be better than lumping them all in one giant ball. That would be overwhelming.
                  What if it took “Centuries”? Well, the now seemingly-immortal poet would simply tick the centuries off her fingers until she’d counted so many her poor fingers dropped off and fell to the other side of the world (Van Dieman’s Land was an early name for Tasmania—which really is the opposite side of the world from Massachussetts).
                  But if the lover was never going to make it back and the speaker had to wait until heaven, why she’d just “toss” her life “yonder, like a Rind” of a watermelon or orange that is no longer of interest, and head for Yonder.

                  But life is never that simple. We all have to live with ambiguity, uncertainty, and the always great possibility of disappointment. I very much like thinking of this negative potential as a Goblin Bee that buzzes around without ever indicating just when it is that it will sting. Perhaps never!


  1. I think the fourth stanza makes the goading of the Goblin Bee all the more menacing. The opening word "if" suggests that even in death it is not certain that we will be with those we love. Though in today's world it seems commonplace for people to assume or at least hope that they will be with those they love in the next life, Dickinson's poem highlights the Calvinistic belief that only those who have proven themselves "saved" are going to heaven and that just because you love someone doesn't ensure that you will be with them. Or perhaps even more goading, the poem might be indicating the complete uncertainly of any next-life reunion for anyone, regardless of whether they've been "saved." For me, this adds an increased fear of death and an increased doubt towards religion to the poem.

    1. Good point. That uncertainly must have hung over everyone. I don't think Calvinists felt there was any 'proof' of being one of the Chosen and thus saved. One had to just hope the Goblin Bee (the opposite, I now realize, of the great God Bee of earlier poems) isn't aiming for you.

  2. In 1862 ED was sure she would never see Wadsworth again in this world, and she seesaws, how many times, between believing and doubting she will see him in heaven. She’s wrong about this life; he showed up unannounced at her front door in 1880, as she described to Charles Clark in L1040, postmarked April 15, 1886, exactly one month before her death:

    Thank you, Dear friend [Charles Clark] –

    I am better. The velocity of the ill, however, is like that of the snail.
    ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙
    I could hardly have thought it possible that the scholarly Stranger to whom my Father introduced me [Wadsworth, in 1855], could have mentioned my Friend [Charles Clark], almost itself a Vision, or have still left a Legend to relate his name.

    With the exception of my Sister who never saw Mr Wadsworth, your Name alone remains.

    "Going Home," was he not an Aborigine of the sky? "Where did you come from," I said, for he spoke like an Apparition.

    "I stepped from my Pulpit to the Train" was my [his] simple reply, and when I asked "how long," "Twenty Years" said he with inscrutable roguery - but the loved Voice has [now] ceased, and to some one who hard [heard] him "Going Home," it was sweet to speak. I am glad his [dog] Willie is faithful, of whom he said "the Frogs were his little friends" and I told him they were [also to] my Dogs, the last smile that he gave me. Thank you for each circumstance, and tell me all you love to say of what said your lost Brother "The Doctor opened his Heart to Charlie." Excuse me for the Voice, this moment immortal. With my Sister's remembrance,

    E. Dickinson.

  3. In my previous comment I'd like to switch my two explanatory brackets:

    "I could hardly have thought it possible that the scholarly Stranger to whom my Father introduced me [Charles Clark], could have mentioned my Friend [Charles Wadsworth], almost itself a Vision, or have still left a Legend to relate his name."

  4. A year earlier, in F240 (Variant A, 1861), ED visited this theme of knowing versus not knowing the limits of pain:

    "Bound - a trouble -
    And lives can bear it!
    Limit - how deep a bleeding go!
    So - many - drops - of vital scarlet -
    Deal with the soul
    As with Algebra!

    "Tell it the Ages - to a cypher -
    And it will ache - contented - on -
    Sing - at it's pain - as any Workman -
    Notching the fall of the even sun!"

    A year later she returned to that theme in the present poem and two years later in a revision of F240’s Stanza 1, (Variant B, 1863):

    Bound a Trouble – and lives will bear it!
    Circumscription – enables Woe –
    Still to anticipate – Were not limit –
    Who were sufficient to Misery?

    During 1861-1863, she seems to have changed her mind about enduring pain. In 1861 the wait for pain relief was merely a matter of “algebra” to the soul, but two years later, one year after the present poem’, she seems to imply there’s a “limit” to how much “misery” of “anticipation” she’s willing to endure.

    Did she change her mind? As usual, the Queen of Riddlers gives us ambiguity, but isn’t that what the universe always gives us in matters of belief.