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30 November 2012

The Grass so little has to do—

The Grass so little has to do—
A Sphere of simple Green—
With only Butterflies to brood,
And Bees, to entertain—

And stir all day to pretty tunes
The Breezes fetch along,
And hold the Sunshine, in its lap
And bow to everything,

And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearl,
And make itself so fine
A Duchess were too common 
For such a noticing,

And even when it die, to pass
In Odors so divine—
As lowly spices, laid to sleep—
Or Spikenards perishing—

And then to dwell in Sovereign Barns,
And dream the Days away, 
The Grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a Hay—

                                                            F379 (1862)  333

This dreamy poem is one of my favorites. Dickinson’s portrayal of grass is simple, beautiful, and very idealistic. She takes us to that little fairy land that anyone who grew up with English story books would find familiar: lush, untrammelled grass and, nearby, a rustic barn loaded with fragrant hay. The Fairy Queen, or perhaps a 30-some woman much like Dickinson, is lying on a rise in the meadow resting in profound enjoyment. The poem seems like a daydream taken from that quiet vantage.
         Time stands still at the beginning of the poem. The day passes, but for the grass it has just been to “brood” some caterpillars into butterflies, to tickle the low-flying bumblebees, and move to the “pretty tune” that the breezes “fetch along” as they travel through the woods and meadow. At night they turn the condensate into pearls of dew drops that gleam and glow as the sun rises. With such riches and beauty a duchess could ride by and not attract a single glance.
         Dickinson turns from her elegy to live grass to one for dead grass, or hay. There is the suggestion, I think, that hay is more than a graceful corporeal ending to the green and growing grass. Rather, it stands for what comes after death. Although quite a few of Dickinson’s poems suggest or claim that both body and soul will be resurrected in an afterlife, this poem suggests a more homely and naturalistic ending. Again, Dickinson idealizes. Just as the grass was perfect, unmarred by dead patches or weeds, or gouged-out areas, so her hay is as sweet-smelling as any spice. It’s true, though. Good hay has a powerfully heady smell.
         The first two lines of the last stanza are romantically serene and wistfully indulgent.  The hay dwells “in Sovereign Barns” to “dream the Days away.” This may be the poet’s idea of heaven. In “Papa above!” she wants to be “Snug in seraphic Cupboards / To nibble all the day” like a tiny mouse.  In this poem she imagines her heaven not as a city of marble and pearl but as a familiar and comforting barn. Another bit of heaven: she wouldn’t have tasks to do, like caring for her increasingly incapacitated mother, cooking for her austere father, and other household duties. She would do what she most wants to do: “dream the Days away.” Dream and then write poems. A poet’s heaven.
         Adding to the calm serenity of the poem are the regular meter of the stanzas (common ballad—her most usual form) and the fairly tight rhyme scheme. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are rhymed—slant rhymes except for the last pair. Look at the list of these rhyming words: lots of "ee" sounds along with “eye,” “r," and “g."
          Green    along    fine    divine
          entertain    everything    noticing    perishing   

It is a family of sounds. A word like “baby” or “sand” would stand out as different. And that’s what the last two rhymes do: “away” and “hay” make an exact rhyme in an entirely different palette of sounds. Their long “a” lingers just as we sense the poet lingering in the barn and meadow whenever she can. 


  1. I, too, love the lilting rhythms and dreamy imagery of the poem. But, I have to admit, the last line jars in its lack of surprise, too easy. Though not THAT easy, she wishes she were "a Hay" not "the Hay," only one strand of grass.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. What do the breezes bring to the grasses?

  4. What do you mean by sphere of simple grass

  5. Are you meaning to ask what Dickinson means by 'Sphere of simple Green'? If so, you might want to think about what Green refers to and how that might fit into 'Sphere'.

  6. It seems there are several versions of Dickinson’s poems sometimes, right? For instance, the version I was reading shows the line as “A spear of simple green.”

    Looking at the Emily Dickinson archives with her handwritten copies doesn’t necessarily help either, as they seem to differ, also! Is there a particular editor or edition that you prefer? Thank you again for your thought-full and thought-provoking commentary.

    1. I think R.W. Franklin's editing is widely admired. Another book I appreciate is Christanne Miller's 'Emily Dickinson's Poems As She Preserved Them'. Miller foregrounds poems Dickinson hand bound into little booklets (fascicles), reasoning that these are the poems Dickinson was 'publishing.' After the fascile poems come the rest. An index allows you to find specific poems.

      Additionally, Miller notes variants.

  7. what figurative language is thread the dews all night, like pearls?

  8. And hold the sunshine.........
    ....... Bow to everything. Which figure of speech is used...... Can anyone help me in knowing this??

  9. Why did the poetess wished to be a hay??

    1. Why, each stanza gives you a reason!

    2. I love this exchange. I read it in a "joke" format.

      Q. Why did the poetess wish to be hay? A. Why, each stanza gives you a reason!

  10. Replies
    1. I`m not sure I understand the question. To stir means to move a spoon or other implement around in (a liquid or other substance) in order to mix it thoroughly. Stir may also mean to awaken.

    2. In this context, "stir all day to pretty tunes" defines a movement.

    3. Spikenard is new to me. From Wikipedia:

      a class of aromatic amber-colored essential oil...a flowering plant in the honeysuckle family which grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. The oil has been used over centuries as a perfume, a traditional medicine, or in religious ceremonies across a wide territory from India to Europe.

      Spikenard can relax the brain and cardiovascular system, acting as a “strong hypnotic cerebral sedative” and a cardiovascular relaxant.

      Kind of like this poem!

      And I like this little bit from Song of Solomon too,

      While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof. A bundle of myrrh is my well beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.

    4. Solomon's Song, the sort ED sang yesterday, freckled breasts to die for?

  11. Where does this sickly poet get the stamina to turn out a poem a day, many of them masterpieces like this one? Shakespeare answers, cryptically (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 182-185)):


    O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”


    And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    Okay, she took a few days off, 522 poems in 1862-63 (Franklin 1998).