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13 July 2013

I was the slightest in the House —

I was the slightest in the House —
I took the smallest Room —
At night, my little Lamp, and Book —
And one Geranium —

So stationed I could catch the Mint
That never ceased to fall —
And just my Basket —
Let me think — I'm sure —
That this was all —

I never spoke — unless addressed —
And then, 'twas brief and low —
I could not bear to live — aloud —
The Racket shamed me so —

And if it had not been so far —
And any one I knew
Were going — I had often thought
How noteless — I could die —
                                                                      F473  (1862)   J486

Although there is a lot of pathos in this poem, it isn't explicitly autobiographical. Emily Dickinson shared a room with her sister until they were grown, she never had the smallest room, and she was not so very quiet, either. Yet for all that, it may be that the poet made her essential self small and quiet. It may be that although she could be outgoing and talkative, in a deeper level the "Racket" of small talk and conversation, the transactions of daily life "shamed" her. Perhaps it would seem shameful to dwell on the mundane – and even the received and proscriptive doctrines of the Church – if your soul were in love with Possibility and Circumference.

The poem is written as a memory. We do not know from what vantage the narrator writes. Is she in some happier or more meaningful place? Has she become more assertive? How much time has passed?

    I suspect that the poet, now in her thirties, is writing about her early years as a poet, the time before she consecrated herself. She was still on call to family and friends, still engaging in community and social events. It wasn't until she had withdrawn from the world that she owned more of herself. Her room became figuratively larger because she made more space for herself.
     Looking at the museum her room and house have become, we see she never claimed more than a small room, a litte lamp, a very small writing table, and other simple furnishings. I like the poem's specificity of "one Geranium."  It enables us to picture her there with her book, lamp, and flower. Once she "stationed" herself there, the golden "Mint" of inspiration "never ceased to fall" (how fantastic! but no doubt exhausting) – and that reminds the poet of her basket, that part of her that received the glorious Mint.
Danae impregnated by  the golden
shower  of Zeus (Gustav
Klimpt, 1907)

    The last stanza is confessional. The younger speaker, recognizing her insignificance, thought that if it weren't such a frightening and lonely idea, she could die without leaving scarcely a ripple. She made a similar point in F11: "Nobody knows this little Rose," where

Only a Bird will wonder—
Only a Breeze will sigh—
Ah Little Rose—how easy
For such as thee to die!

The fragility of life, the sheer randomness of luck and death, the great societal currents swirling about that engulf the individual – grist for the poet's mill. How easily we seem to slip from the living to the dead; how rarely does it matter. Like the little rose missed by only a bird and a breeze, the poet felt her grip on life so insignificant that her death would be likewise.


  1. I wonder what Emily Dickinson would have made of her posthumous fame? She (as a rose) might have felt neglected (as written in this poem--or the earlier ones), but she took comfort in her solitude (I'm Nobody! Who are you?)

    Although I can't say with any certainty, I'd like to think she'd be happy people reading her poems. Especially, as some of her poems, almost address the reader, or allude to the nature of her craft (as though asking the reader to think about her). That said, I sometimes feel she might not have want them read. It's a question I wish I had the answer to. Maybe, this poem (along with "Nobody knows this little Rose-") answers that question with a quiet "yes, it's okay." I hope so.

    1. It's an interesting question. It is clear that ED knew the quality of her poetry. I think it is also clear that she was not shy about sharing her poetry -- just about publishing. She shared hundreds of her poems in letters sent to friends. She also carefully bound many of her poems in fascicles and destroyed earlier drafts. So, it is clear that she organized her work with as sense that it would be read after she died.

  2. The last stanza is a bit tough for me, because I think it could work in a couple of ways. The way I read it most clearly is stating: "I could leave this world without leaving a note or an imprint on a loved one, if all of them leave before me." I also read it as saying, "I keep on thinking about death, when all these people I know are dying, and with whom will I leave these notes (poems) behind." The second version is bit forced, I think, but I feel there's something more she's getting to in her final stanza.

    What do you make of it?

    1. Apologies, for all these posts! Doesn't the past tense in "I was the slightest in the House-" and "I had often thought" indicate that she know longer thinks this way. That she know occupies a larger place in the house, and is satisfied with the notes left behind!

      Sorry, again, for all these posts!

    2. I agree that the past tense indicates she no longer feels the same way about death. Perhaps she came to recognize her importance to the individuals in her family, to her friends – and perhaps to poetry itself. Once dedicated to poetry, Dickinson may have looked back on her earlier life as if she had been a very slight and insignificant figure, one very lightly connected to life. So I also agree with you that the 'notes' or poems are key to the mature vantage she takes in this poem.

  3. I believe the mint relates to the geranium.(Pelargonium tomentosum). The fragrance is quite strong and if you are stationed nearby the plant its scent never ceases to fall.

    1. Thank you! Adds a nice sensual detail -- and is a lovely metaphor as well.

  4. Wonderful analysis! I really don't think I could have got so much out of such a tiny little poem! You've reminded me that I need to read more Dickinson!

  5. ED knew her worth as a poet and left her poems to be read in later generations. I wonder how much of the "cult" of ED adds to her enduring legacy, the reclusive poet of Amherst, and though I don't think she consciously cultivated this image of herself, she was also certainly aware if the mystique her seclusion had on others. To be pessimistic about my beloved Em, sometimes, into more jaded moments, I wonder if her choice of her eccentric and reclusive life isn't just a genius marketing strategy to ensure her brand remains ever on the shelf.

  6. To continue: like Sylvia Plath's suicide. Both poets of unappeasable ambition.

  7. However - for poets, time is neither past or present, only the evanescesnt flow of clouds unseen.

  8. I have a comment on reading ED. Having read Jerome Loving's book I have realized that Dickinson should be read as a pessimist. Then a lot of things fall into place.The mistake is to believe her more reassurung than she is.If you want a positive poet look for Walt Whitman.

    1. I haven't read that book or about that book, but I would hesitate to pigeonhole Dickinson or try to read her in one way. She is mercurial: angry, in pain, joyful, wry, wondering, and questing -- always questing inwardly and outwardly.

  9. Your final paragraph, a poem; your explication, a thing of beauty; your choice of image, inspiring. Thank you Susan.

  10. Your final paragraph is a poem:

    "The fragility of life,
    the sheer randomness of luck and death,
    the great societal currents swirling about
    that engulf the individual –
    grist for the poet's mill.

    "How easily we seem to slip from the living to the dead;
    how rarely does it matter.

    "Like the little rose missed by only a bird and a breeze,
    the poet felt her grip on life so insignificant
    that her death would be likewise."