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07 November 2012

I tend my flowers for thee—

 I tend my flowers for thee—
Bright Absentee!
My Fuchsia's Coral Seams
Rip—while the Sower—dreams—

Geraniums—tint—and spot—
Low Daisies—dot—
My Cactus—splits her Beard
To show her throat—

Carnations—tip their spice—
And Bees—pick up—
A Hyacinth—I hid—
Puts out a Ruffled Head—
And odors fall
From flasks—so small—
You marvel how they held—

Globe Roses—break their satin flake—
Upon my Garden floor—
Yet—thou—not there—
I had as lief they bore
No Crimson—more—

Thy flower—be gay—
Her Lord—away!
It ill becometh me—
I'll dwell in Calyx—Gray—
How modestly—alway—
Thy Daisy—
Draped for thee!
                                                                                          F367 (1862)  339

One reason flowers are traditionally considered to be the language of love is because descriptions of flowers can so easily be sexual. Petals can be soft and creamy. Some flowers open to the prowling bee, luring him into their hidden parts to find the nectar he craves. Red roses indicate passion. In this flirtatious poem, Dickinson uses one flower after another to reveal the feelings of a woman for her absent “Lord,” the “Bright Absentee!”
Bursting fuschia flowers
The poem’s speaker dreams of him—or perhaps she is simply dreaming to while away the time while he is gone. She refers to herself as “the Sower,” the creator of the garden—an interesting gender reversal as typically the sower is masculine and the receiving and fertile earth, feminine. And sure enough, in the last stanza the speaker metaphorically becomes the flower. As a sower, the speaker leaves much to be desired. Even though she claims to be tending her garden for her lover, it is in fact neglected. While the lover, her lord, is away, her interior garden is blooming, ripening, and even decaying--all while the Sower sleeps.
As she dreams of her lord, her fuchsia swells and bursts. Her “Cactus—splits her Beard / To show her throat”—and image suggesting the Sower is ripe and opening.  Meanwhile, the geraniums and daisies that should have been pruned and dead-headed have flowered and now are past their prime.
bearded cactus
                  Likewise, the fragrant carnation flowers mature and “tip their spice” while a ruffled hyacinth practically drips with sweet-smelling nectar. These luscious smells serve to attract pollinators and, sure enough, the bees do come around. Dickinson finally introduces the rose, the ultimate symbol of love. “Globe Roses,” the full, soft, round sort, she says, shed their petals “Upon my Garden floor.” It is as if the fullness of her womanhood, her ripeness, is going to waste. She would rather that her rose bushes bore no fruit at all if her lord isn’t there.
Ruffled hyacinth
                  The last stanza completes the flirtation. There’s no way, she protests, that I should reveal my sexual attractiveness while her lord is absent. “It ill becometh me,” she says. Instead she’ll wrap herself in plain gray sepals, the “Calyx” within which the bud ripens. In this modest attire she will be “Draped” until her lord’s return. It teases like a stripper with flounces and boas.
                  Scholars try to pin this poem on Dickinson’s feelings for the traveling Samuel Bowles. He was a man who appreciated gardens and flowers. Dickinson may have loved him passionately. Nonetheless, the poem reads quite satisfactorily without having to dredge biographical details out of it. There is for most of us that moment when the fragrant rose petals fall to the garden floor. Isn’t this the best time for love? Wouldn’t it be sad if the loved one was far away while our bloom came and went? I think that’s what Dickinson is getting at here. 


  1. This reminds me of a nun's secret passion for her beloved, Jesus. The inner nectar hidden inside the startched robes, in the Gray, modestly.

    And that last image of the Daisy Draped reminds me of a coffin, and how the poet pines over her Bright Absentee.

  2. I always loved this poem for the descriptions. But the sexual metaphors is so interesting and adds so much meaning. Thank you for this. :)