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15 June 2013

The Himmaleh was known to stoop

The Himmaleh was known to stoop
Unto the Daisy low —
Transported with Compassion
That such a Doll should grow
Where Tent by Tent — Her Universe
Hung out its Flags of Snow —

                                                                           F460 (1862)  J481

This little poem has the same teasing tone as the previous one – and was written on the same piece of paper. Perhaps some particular loved one said or did something that sparked a little flash. Just to get biographical, I’d venture that the poems were directed towards Samuel Bowles, a man many scholars believe Dickinson loved and who may have been the “Master” to whom she wrote several passionate letters (though they were probably not delivered). Bowles was an editor of the influential and prestigious Springfield Republican newspaper. Dickinson sent him numerous poems but he was not encouraging. Although that paper published seven of Dickinson’s poems, none of them are among the ones she sent Bowles directly. Consequently, we don’t know if he had a hand in publishing them or not.
         Dickinson writes this poem as if telling a fable: Once upon a time there was a great mountain. Yet despite its size and grandeur it took an interest in a small daisy growing at its feet. The mountain was filled with love and concern for this little flower that lived amid the snowfields hanging out its own “Flags of Snow.”
      Of interest here are Dickinson’s diction and what the poet is getting at with “Flags of Snow.” I find the phrase wonderfully rich and ambiguous. The daisy’s “Universe” far below the mountaintop is growing “Tent by Tent” as if it were a travelling show setting up. Indeed, daisies would need to ‘travel’ in the Himalayas, coming out only in the brief spring and summer season before disappearing. The flags of snow would, in this context, be the flags that fly from the top of the tents – and the spreading patches of white flowers.
         But Dickinson clearly has other meanings in mind. We’ve seen in “Doubt Me! My Dim Companion!” Dickinson’s use of “snow” to suggest purity and virginity (F332):

Sift her, from Brow to Barefoot!
Strain till your last Surmise—
Drop, like a Tapestry, away,
Before the Fire's Eyes—
Winnow her finest fondness—
But hallow just the snow
Intact, in Everlasting flake—
Oh, Caviler, for you!

In the same vein, Dickinson included the following lines to an 1861 letter to Samuel Bowles (along with a poem, “Through the Straight Pass of Suffering” F187):

Dear friend
If you doubted my Snow _ for a moment _ you never will _ again _ I know _ Because I could not say it _ I fixed it in the Verse _ for you to read _ when your thought wavers, for such a foot as mine _

“Snow” in both snippets suggests purity. She had taken a moral stance against becoming a public, published poet just as a woman of her day might take a moral stance towards virginity. Dickinson also used “snow” to represent pages of poetry. And so “Flags of Snow” represents, in addition to the visual representation of daisy fields spreading in the spring, Dickinson’s growing “Universe” of poetry, growing poem by poem. No wonder the mighty mountain is fascinated.

As to the diction: two words burn an edge of bitterness into this otherwise playful poem: “stoop” and “Doll.” Dickinson having the mountain stoop rather than peer or bend suggests pride or even arrogance. While “Daisy” is a nickname Dickinson commonly uses for herself, “Doll” is not. The suggestion that Daisy is a Doll in the mountain’s eyes is not false modesty on the part of the poet but a cutting observation of how she believes Bowles (or whomever) regards her. She is an interesting little figure that must be tended to – like a beloved plaything writing poetry.
         Notice, though, that the Daisy has a “Universe” that is growing, that we read in the daisy a lot of fortitude as well as purity. It raises the question of which is the more impressive after all: the mountain or the daisy. This is the question Dickinson raised in an earlier poem:

In lands I never saw—they say
Immortal Alps look down—
Whose Bonnets touch the firmament—
Whose Sandals touch the town—

Meek at whose everlasting feet

A Myriad Daisy play—
Which, Sir, are you and which am I
Upon an August day?

There is a lot of nuance in this short poem – as well as a lot of room for interpretation.


  1. This is a beautiful little poem.

    If you don't start with a biographical reading where the mountain is a man and the poet is Daisy -- then I think the more natural reading would be to have "Her Universe" refer to the mountain's universe. Then tent by tent could refer to traditional Tibetan nomad camps -- and flags of snow could be an image of patches of snow on the Spring mountainside. This catches better the mountain's surprise at the incongruity of finding a delicate flower in its universe of granite and glaciers.

    The reference to compassion underlying the natural world is startling and beautiful. There is also a sense of a great power exercising an awareness of the small -- like observing the fall of a sparrow -- but in this case without a religious reference.

    The last poem you mention is interesting -- with very similar imagery. Especially when read together the two poems make the biographical interpretation of this poem a very plausible reading as well.

  2. I hadn't thought of the Universe as being that of the mountains, but it makes a lot of sense -- and does reveal a permeating quality of compassionate awareness as you describe.

    I'm leaning more and more away from looking for the biographical because it masks the poem -- as it did here. I saw "Daisy" and immediately read the biographical.

    Thanks for your thoughtful commentary.

  3. The Great Susan (Dollie to her family)was once a front stoop, hill climbing, hand holding friend of 'little' Emily."...will you indeed come home...and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to...?" Susan also had to recognize she had a gifted and intelligent friend in Emily. Susan was surprised and appreciative of the fact that someone she would share so much with lived next door where Emily, with her unique perspective, would produce poem after poem.

    1. So are you suggesting that Susan is the "doll" in the poem -- or what? (and I sure wish I could have known Sue... so many contradictory and fascinating tidbits about her)

  4. I think she's playing with the word. Emily knows Susan is also known as Dollie. "Such a Doll" would mean something like "a person like you," someone who shares your interests, someone you enjoy hanging around with, a real friend.Emily is the Doll in the poem. Like you, I would love to have known these women. They share my interests!

  5. I'm delighted to have found your blog! I recently began a journey into Emily's poetry, though I am venturing via random selection and writing upon the poems as portals into personal reflection and spiritual contemplation. Once I've written on each one, it will be fun to come over here to see what you have shared for a different perspective. Blessings!

  6. The pronoun “her” is confusing - the daisy or the mountain? If it is the mountain, the tents would be the mountains themselves in their tent-like shapes covered w snow.

    1. Oh boy, that mountains as tents idea really rings true. But it's the daisy's Universe. The stooping mountain worries about what will happen when daisy's universe becomes covered with snow. Maybe.

  7. Amazing poem. Catches not only the enormity of difference between the cold impersonal of the objective and the dainty child-like (doll) of the subjective experience, but also the surprising sense of relation between the two. It's an astonishing thought, the mountain stooping to the flower. It's like my grandpa always said, even kings will bow to a baby.

  8. Among the many possible interpretations of ‘The Himmaleh was known to stoop’: Austin (Himmaleh), scion of Amherst’s finest family, stooped low to marry an orphan (Sue, AKA, “Dolly”) with no similar status. His compassion and her charm sparked an 1856 marriage that was not made in heaven. She realized early on that she had made a mistake by marrying: “· · · for I, Emily, bear a sorrow that I never uncover—If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we?. . . Sue” (about September 1861). As years passed, Sue apparently flew flags of surrender, but the marriage dragged on. Austin’s diary reveals an explosion of passion when he began his late-in-life affair in 1882 with Mabel Todd. The ménage à trois continued until Austin’s death in 1895. The affair was common gossip in Amherst, but Sue endured the humiliation.