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 It wasn't until she had withdrawn from the world that she owned more of herself.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
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.