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30 November 2012

All the letters I can write

All the letters I can write

Are not fair as this—

Syllables of Velvet—

Sentences of Plush,

Depths of Ruby, undrained,

Hid, Lip, for Thee—

Play it were a Humming Bird—

And just sipped—me—
                                       F380 (1862)  334

Velvety and alluring rose
This poem was part of a letter to Dickinson’s cousin, Eudocia Flynt, after Flynt’s visit in 1862. The first two sentences said, “Dear Mrs. Flint, You and I, didn’t finish talking. Have you room for the sequel, in your Vase?” The poem followed, and a fresh rose was included.
            Red roses are—and were then—symbols of love and passion. Judith Farr (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson) says these deep ruby roses were the old “Deep Cup” roses—“extremely alluring in color and fragrance.” Their texture, by Dickinson’s lines alone, must have been (are?) “Plush” and velvety.
           The line “Hid, Lip, for Thee—” is a bit difficult. I read it as follows: the ruby rose is “undrained” because the poet did not drink it herself—did not inhale its odor—but saved it for the recipient, Mrs. Flynt.  The lip of the rose was shyly hiding “for Thee.” Strictly speaking, a flower’s lip (labellum—yes, the same Latin word from which we get “labia”) is part of an orchid rather than a rose. It is the beautiful landing-platform petal that attracts pollinators. The beautiful rose, then, is virginal and pure—and alluring.

         If that sounds a bit sexual, so does the last part. Dickinson suggests that Flynt play with the rose as if she were a hummingbird sipping (again the cross-sensory imagery of drinking/sipping for smelling/inhaling) the rose. Except that Dickinson writes “me” rather than “rose”!  I suppose this might be construed as Flynt should smell the rose as a hummingbird might sip from it, and imagine that she is giving her cousin a kiss. It’s that lip/labellum part that might have given Flynt pause—and caused her to write a bit excitedly in her diary: “Had a letter from Emily Dickinson!!!!”
Alluring lip (labellum) of an orchid


  1. ED seems unabashed in her sexually charged images related to both women and men, and yet the sexuality maintains an air of innocence as if flowing through the heart of a little girl.

  2. I also wonder if she is referring to her poem as well as the enclosed rose-- thank you for adding context. Before I read your commentary, I thought she was making a distinction between verse and prose.

  3. I still find the last image difficult. I now read it as "Pretend the rose is a hummingbird and just sipped my nectar". It would make more sense to me if Flynt were to be the hummingbird and Dickinson the rose -- or something.

    I can see how the poem might be read as poetry vs. prose -- or perhaps a statement of what Dickinson aimed for in her poetry: something as lovely as the rose.

  4. I read it as ED is the rose and Flynt is the hummingbird.

  5. Thanks for all of this, SK and others. Last two lines do baffle no matter what: any chance there is a LARGE elision (Play it as if you were a hummingbird that had just sipped me?). I guess I' agreeing with the 2/10/15 anonymous one and elaborating. So the rose IS not ED, but her sand in, her way of, as she said in her letter, of continuing the conversation with sexual fantasizing. Then the cliched lover's rhyme of thee/me becomes quite charged.

    1. Yes, I totally recant my 2/9/15 comment and agree with you and Anon 10/15: ED is adding a graceful and affectionate note to the flower: Her cousin is to inhale deeply of the flower, just as the hummingbird drinks its ruby depths -- and this will be not only a kiss, but the continuance of what must have been a deep conversation!

      I'm less convinced that ED was making overt or even conscious sexually charged remarks. But it is certainly easy to read in ED's reference to her cousin's vase, the flower's ruby depths, and the sipping of hidden lips a very female sexuality. Lovely poem.

  6. I'm just seat and relax reading different opinions from you all. A kind of addicted to it!!