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06 January 2013

I think the Hemlock likes to stand

I think the Hemlock likes to stand
Upon a Marge of Snow—
It suits his own Austerity—
And satisfies an awe

That men, must slake in Wilderness—
And in the Desert—cloy—
An instinct for the Hoar, the Bald—

The Hemlock's nature thrives—on cold—
The Gnash of Northern winds
Is sweetest nutriment—to him—
His best Norwegian Wines —

To satin Races—he is nought—
But Children on the Don,
Beneath his Tabernacles, play,
And Dnieper Wrestlers, run.
                                                                F400 (1862)  525

Numerous anthropology and geography papers have been written on the difference between the residents of northern and southern climes. Dickinson dives in here and makes it clear her own preference is for the cold north, here symbolized by the Hemlock.
          She anthropomorphizes the Hemlock as if it represents a character type (perhaps her austere and cold father?): he "likes" to be in the snow because it "suits his own Austerity." Something about this majestic tree braving the winter from its "Marge of Snow" touches us, the poet claims. The graceful tree amid a cold, wind-swept landscape awakens "an awe" that only wilderness satisfies. 
posted with permission by the photographer
Photo of hemlocks: Michaela,
The Gardeners Eden
          This sense of awe turns cloying in the desert and warmer climate where the "satin Races" live. I read "satin" to mean all those folks who live a life of ease. Dickinson suggests that humans have some instinctive predilection for the wintry "Bald" barrens where the hemlock survives. This is "Lapland's—necessity."
          Lapland is usually considered to be the northernmost part of Scandinavia. In Dickinson's day, however, "Lapland" might refer to mystical lands where sorcerers conjured icy weather; it might also suggest purity and simplicity. In fact, New England itself was sometimes referred to as Lapland. 
          Dickinson paints a heroic picture of the hemlock: austere, awesome, thriving in the cold--he even relishes those Nor'easters as if they were the finest wine. Alas, she gets a few details wrong: the hemlock isn't found in Lapland, would never enjoy "Norwegian Wines." She is no doubt thinking of the Eastern or Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) that would be a fairly common sight in Massachusetts.
          It would not be found along the great Russian rivers, Don and Dnieper, where Dickinson imagines children play "Beneath his Tabernacles" and wrestlers work out. The Don River begins south of Moscow, flowing through the central Russian uplands until emptying in the Sea of Azov and thence to the Black Sea. The Dnieper River, originating to the east of Moscow, flows through Belarus and Ukraine to empty directly into the Black Sea.

Edward Dickinson: perhaps a bit
bald and hoar; certainly austere
          But it would be churlish to quibble about such details when we have such a fine tribute to this excellent tree. I'm going to put myself out on one of its limbs and venture that Dickinson is indeed thinking of her father. People who are soft and pampered might not appreciate his stern, orthodox Calvinism, but his strength and shade were surely a sufficient tabernacle under which the children of the household might play. I can even read a playful little dig at her father when she writes about the "Hoar, the Bald." If Andrew Jackson was "Old Hickory," then is it such a stretch that Edward Dickinson was "Old Hemlock?" 
          After he died, though, she wrote to her mentor T.W. Higginson, "His heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists." Perhaps she caught a glimpse of this in the hemlock trees standing in the snow.


  1. I read this as an image of her own reclusiveness. Your interpretation with the masculine presence in the poem throws a larger light. I think how wonderfully complex a poem can be to reveal simultaneous layers and different angles to different eyes.

    1. She wasn't so very reclusive when she wrote this poem, yet no doubt it was that about the hemlock that was part of its attraction. However, even when she chose to not leave her home grounds, she had a wide reach from among her many correspondents and her chatty sister and servant. Plus her window! I wonder if at night when she was able to retreat to her room, if she didn't take on the hemlock persona. Her father, of course, had his study and all the privacy he might want.

  2. Thank you, Susan, for your having so eloquently unpacked the mystery of Emily Dickinson’s elegant albeit edgy poem. Her writing attests to the wealth that can be produced while sheltering in place.

  3. Our unstated inference is correct. ED Lex defines “Marge” as “Border; edge”, and that definition dates back to at least 1551 (OED).

    The [Canadian Hemlock] was introduced to British gardens in 1736. · · · · · . In Germany it is the most frequently seen hemlock in cultivation, and is also used in forestry (Britannica).

    In North America the species grows best in cool, moist habitat, like riverbanks. It may also have escaped into that habitat in northern Europe and Russia.

  4. “Satin Races” refers to skin sheen, a glisten that especially enhances beauty of dark skin. Dark skin is evolutionarily favored among humans of tropical origin because it protects against melanoma, which is 20 times more likely among whites than among Blacks (American Cancer Society).

  5. Hemlock is the most shade-tolerant of all North American evergreen trees and often grows in dark Appalachian vales that sometimes feel mystical to me. ED's lovely ode to the hemlock serves equally well as an ode to her father, Edward, whose austere personality disguised a loving father who could never say no to ED's poetic dreams.

    Apropos of nothing, both ED and Edward had auburn hair, his vanishing into baldness with age (photo above), hers luxurient, without a trace of gray, even in her coffin (Bianchi, 1932, 'Face to Face').

    It's 3/4 true that "Dickinson . . . . makes it clear her own preference is for the cold north, here symbolized by the Hemlock." ED loved Massachusetts in spring, summer, and autumn, but in winter she would have been a Florida snowbird if that option had been available.