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09 January 2014

They have a little Odor — that to me

They have a little Odor — that to me
Is metre — nay — 'tis Poesy —     
And spiciest at fading — celebrate — 
A Habit — of a Laureate —
                                                                            F505 (1863)  J785

The laurel leaf wreath is said to have originated with Apollo. Having been maddened by love for Daphne after Eros wounded him with an arrow, Apollo chased her until she panicked and begged her father (river god Ladonas) to be transformed. Ladonas changed her into a bay laurel seconds before her capture. Apollo was reportedly so struck by the tree's beauty that he adopted the tree and decreed that its leaves would honor the best Greek poets and statesmen. The tradition has continued as great poets and other scholars have been awarded the laurel wreath. Dante, for example, is typically pictured with one. Closer to Dickinson, Mt. Holyoke College graduates have traditionally worn laurel wreaths or carried laurel chains. In fact, the word "baccalaureate" refers to laurel berries.
Frederick Sandys: portrait of his daughter
as poetic muse with laurel wreath

I provide all this background as justification for thinking this poem is about the bay laurel. Dickinson was a highly-regarded gardener and cook. No doubt laurel leaves, perhaps from her own garden, were a staple in her kitchen pantry. I picture her smelling their spicy aroma and thinking about two poet laureates whose poetry she enjoyed: William Wordsworth, who died in 1850; and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who died in 1892.

       The fragrant leaves take on a bit of poetry to her – indeed have their own meter. They become more fragrant as they dry and wither. It is this last quality that links them to the poet laureates whose last poems may be best loved. Wouldn't we all like to be "spiciest at fading"?

In keeping with the classical theme, Dickinson uses a stately iambic pentameter alternating with iambic tetrameter. "Habit" enriches the last line with its double meaning of "custom" or "routine" as well as "dress."


  1. Wikipedia lists 34 plant species called “laurel”. The laurel species with aromatic leaves used in cooking is Grecian or bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, but “Poet’s laurel” AKA “Alexandrian laurel” is Danae racemosa, which is not aromatic.

  2. The laurel wreath on Sandys' daughter in the portrait above is Poet's Laurel, Danae racemosa.

  3. Two weeks mark my 81st trip around the sun and 500+ of ED’s fine poems; some would say there’s “a little odor . . . spiciest at fading”. My favorite Queen of Ambiguity (excepting my better half) says it best:

    “If this is “fading”
    Oh let me immediately “fade”!
    If this is “dying”
    Bury – me, in such a shroud of red!
    If this is “sleep,”
    On such a night
    How proud to shut the eye!
    Good evening, gentle Fellow men!
    . . . .”

    F119 (1859)