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18 December 2013

We'll pass without the parting

We'll pass without the parting
So to spare
Certificate of Absence —
Deeming where

I left Her I could find Her
If I tried —
This way, I keep from missing
Those that died.

                                                                           F503 (1863)  J996

This good-by poem ends a little oddly, I think. The poem was written to a friend; Johnson's anthology of Dickinson's poems includes the following preface:

"On the occasion of Mrs. Maria Avery Howard’s departure from Amherst after a visit, Emily’s good-by was embodied in the following lines, accompanied by an oleander blossom tied with black ribbon."

I do not know who Mrs. Howard is, but perhaps a scholar out there can inform us.

At any rate, the poem has a droll, tongue-in-cheek quality to it at least up until those final lines. Dickinson achieves this through the lawyerly "Certificate of Absence" that the she seeks to avoid. A formal goodby is just too conclusive and sad. In lieu of this 'certificate' the poet prefers her friend to simply slip away. That way, she can convince herself Mrs. Howard is still right where she was when last they were together.
    The second stanza completes the thought of the first, but changes voice from first person plural (the "we" of Dickinson and Mrs. Howard) to a first-person voice that refers to the departing friend in the third person. The poem began with a "We" and abruptly switches to "I" and "Her." That's a real break – and Dickinson gives a stanza break right there to emphasize it. The droll tone is maintained: The poet likes to think that her friend, like a good book, can always be picked up from where it was laid down. But that's only half of the second stanza! In the last two lines Dickinson pulls back even further from her focus on Mrs. Howard and makes the rather alarming claim (alarming if you were the recipient) that this is a technique she finds helpful when people die.
The lines seem offhand, almost deadpan, as the light irony takes a sudden nosedive. The idea of friends embalmed in a memory place so that it doesn't matter if they die seems a bit dark and delusional to me.

My first response to the poem was one of shock. Maria Avery Howard was certainly alive when she read those lines. And why the black ribbon? Judith Farr, in The Gardens of Emily
Oleander: lovely and poisonous
Dickinson, says that "By sending the blossom from an oleander (known to be a tough plant) tied with black ribbon to a departing friend, Emily Dickinson may have been suggesting the endurance of their affection." Somehow this doesn't seem convincing to me. The gesture and the final line seem bitter and dismissive. All parts of the oleander are poisonous, something Dickinson, a knowledgeable and widely admired gardener, would surely know – as no doubt Maria Avery Howard would know.
    There is certainly no glossing over the black ribbon. In "The Color of the Grave is Green" (F424, J411, 1862), Dickinson writes that although the outside of the grave is grassy green, and the grave itself is white, "The Color of the Grave within" is black. "You've seen the Color – maybe – / Upon a Bonnet bound…." What binds the bonnet of a grieving Victorian woman would be a black ribbon, bringing us back to the ribbon tying the oleander. Is it possible that this poem is saying "You are dead to me now?"

Readers, I suspect I'm misreading this poem. What do you think?


  1. I agree with your reading -- except I doubt that ED intended some irreparable break with the recipient of this poem. She reflected on death deeply and viewed death and parting as the same -- consigning a person to static memory. So, parting was a cause for mourning.

    ED was unconventional -- and it would be impossible to know how Mrs. Howard might have received the gift. But I am sure that it was intended as a gesture expressing love and loss.

    1. I think you are right -- at least as far as the black ribbon. As a gesture of love and loss it makes sense. The poisonous oleander, however, is more troublesome. It is extremely drought tolerant, so perhaps Farr has the better interpretation. The love of the two friends can endure the drought of absence, even if the absence be permanent.

  2. Maria Avery Howard

    BIRTH: 1 Sep 1833, Aurora, Cayuga County, New York, USA
    MARRIED: July 5, 1864, at Aurora, William Washington Howard
    DEATH 14 Jan 1893 (aged 59) Aurora, Cayuga County, New York, USA

    Susan Gilbert (Dickinson) lived with her aunt, Sophia Van Vranken, in Geneva, New York, 34 miles from Aurora, From 1841, when her father died and she became an orphan, until the late 1840s. She then lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her sister Harriet and brother-in-law William Cutler. She chose to marry Austin Dickinson in Geneva, rather than Amherst. The Avery and Van Avery families likely knew each other and Maria was probably visiting Sue.

    1. Thanks, Larry, for filling in the blanks!

  3. “Why the black ribbon?” Perhaps ED’s inclination to drama, possibly an insider joke or a parting shot, who knows? Only Emily and she ain’t talkin.