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26 February 2014

God made a little Gentian —

God made a little Gentian —
It tried — to be a Rose —
And failed — and all the Summer laughed —
But just before the Snows

There rose a Purple Creature —
That ravished all the Hill —
And Summer hid her Forehead —
And Mockery — was still —

The Frosts were her condition —
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North — invoke it —
Creator — Shall I — bloom?
                              F520 (1863) J442

Just as the swan had to suffer taunts and awkwardness in "The Ugly Duckling", Dickinson's "little Gentian" fails miserably in its efforts to be a lovely rose. Poor thing – laughed at by "all the Summer." But you cannot judge a young waterfowl by its feathers nor a wildflower by its petals. The swan grows into its majestic beauty, discovering its true identity, and by the fall frosts, the humble gentian has spread all over the hills in a ravishing purple display. Take that, Summer! Hide your face and stop your mocking.
Dickinson draws the obvious moral here: While roses bloom in spring and summer, some flowers like the gentian bloom late in the year. The beauty of the gentian, its beautiful Tyrian purple blossoms, waits for the cold north wind to "invoke it" – which is an almost sacramental formulation.  After most all the other wildflowers have died, the North summons the gentian to bloom.
The lovely fringed gentian
photo: Tristan Loper
In the poignant last line, Dickinson turns the gentian's story into a metaphor for her own life. She is 33 years old as she writes this poem. She is in the prime of her poetic outpourings and seems in many of her poems to know her own power. She is, however, decidedly not like anyone else around her. She is beginning to gain the reputation as both an iconic and idiosyncratic spinster. Is it any wonder then that the poet calls out to the Creator to ask if it isn't yet her time to bloom? Dickinson, I think, was well aware that her dazzling poetry would also some day "ravish all the countryside".

It is in some ways a pity that her public blooming took place after her death, yet it may well be that the blooming of her reputation was necessarily not coincident with the blooming of her talent. Dickinson bloomed alone in her room with only a small writing table and a window facing sunset. Could she have written as she did in the spotlight of public approbation?


  1. Lines referring to God begin and end the poem, the last line more intimate than the first. God is associated here with frost, winter and death. ED often describes a god that is indifferent ("Apparently with no surprise to any happy flower, the frost beheads it at its play in accidental power . . . for an approving God") and the creatures of his creation -- small and insignificant (Victory comes late -- . . . God keeps His Oath to Sparrows -- Who of little Love -- know how to starve"). ED's god may note a sparrow falling, but doesn't intervene.

    This poem is in line with these others. But the insignificant here -- the "little Gentian" -- has its own power, a royal purple color that shames all of nature -- a power invoked by winter and death.

    It's a lovely poem.

    1. Thanks - good references.The poet is one who blooms amid God's chill indifference, for as you suggest, she has her own power. In re-reading the poem I see the slyness in that last line. She isn't praying for permission here or being wistful (as I suggested in the above explilcation). She's announcing her readiness and potential.

  2. Until its last line, ‘God made a little Gentian’ is a clever homily for children, a botanical version of shiny red-nose Rudolf with frost instead of fog. Even Santa of the North Pole “invoke” the bright little guy to light his sleigh.

    With Line 12 ED asks God to get involved, but her preceding poem says she wrote a letter to Nature and never got a reply. So, why does she expect one now, especially one telling her to bloom? Sounds self-contradictory unless it was a rhetorical question that she’s already answered for herself — Yes!

    Perhaps she wants a formal invitation, just for physical evidence that He exists.