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08 June 2013

Nature — sometimes sears a Sapling —

Nature — sometimes sears a Sapling —
Sometimes — scalps a Tree —
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die —

Fainter Leaves — to Further Seasons —
Dumbly testify —
We — who have the Souls —
Die oftener — Not so vitally —

                                                                    F457 (1862)  J314

Wildfires, lightning can damage trees severely. If these “Green People” don’t die, they show the scars and marks. Their leaves are fainter, testifying for years to come that they had once endured a serious blow. Anyone who has walked in the woods has noticed the dead snags, remnants of trees that fell to fire, trees shorn of their uppermost branches from some wind storm, and young trees bearing the scars of fire around their lower trunks. Often the structural damage will make it difficult for the trees to thrive; thus, the “fainter Leaves.”


Unlike trees, people have souls. What does Dickinson mean that we therefore “Die oftener” and “Not so vitally”? I suspect she means that we suffer more “killing” blows than do the trees and saplings. It’s not just Nature that can deal us blows, but other people – intentionally or unintentionally. But these blows do not touch our soul. That might explain the saints’ strength in the face of great torment and suffering. We know that Dickinson read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and based some of her poems on its harrowing accounts. Small wonder then, that while she sees the marks of tragedy on both human and tree, she believes that the human soul survives intact (and perhaps is strengthened by) what wounds the flesh.


  1. The ED Lexicon defines "vitally" as vividly. I think this changes the meaning a little. I think she is referring to the internal scars where meanings are. We die more often in life but our scars are not as obvious or vivid as a scarred tree.

    1. Thanks - I hadn't consulted the Lexicon on this. Your reading makes perfect sense.

  2. Very interesting interpretation of the poem. I am wondering if it is possible to interpret the clause 'Die oftener' in terms of human mortality (in addition or alternatively to the notion of scars/wounds). Ultimately, human life is mortal and human beings pass away more frequently than a tree perishes from a rare lightning strike. The clause that follows could perhaps also be interpreted in this vein. The word 'vitally' suggests vividness (perhaps alluding to the demise of a tree in the electric flash of a lightning strike). Yet the word 'vitally' also suggests something that is of essential importance, and Dickinson refers to humanity as dying 'not so vitally', implying our diminutive or inconsequential status in the grand scheme of things. Nature throughout the poem is conveyed as powerful, with the ability to renew. Afterall, trees provide oxygen and are therefore indispensable to other forms of earthly life.

  3. I also thought of the evergreen trees, whose needles/leaves are never the vivid bright green of a deciduous tree’s new growth, and “dumbly testify” to” further seasons” by their more muted color, also never achieving the spectacular fall foliage that the blow of autumn deals to the deciduous tree.