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30 August 2014

A Visitor in Marl —

A Visitor in Marl —
Who influences Flowers —
Till they are orderly as Busts —
And Elegant — as Glass —

Who visits in the Night —
And just before the Sun —
Concludes his glistening interview —
Caresses — and is gone —

But whom his fingers touched —
And where his feet have run —
And whatsoever Mouth be kissed —
Is as it had not been —
                  F558 (1863)  J391

This is the flower version of "The Soul has Bandaged moments" [F360] where "some ghastly Fright" caresses the "freezing hair" of the soul and then takes a "sip" from her unmoving lips. But while that experience is portrayed as a ravaging horror, the flowers meet a kinder doom.

They have a marble "Visitor" who comes at night and "influences them. He engages in an "interview" after which he offers caresses or perhaps even a kiss before he takes his leave. While this is one of Dickinson's delightful puzzle poems, it is not hard to determine just who the visitor is. Clues?

1) He is dressed in "Marl" or marble – a white stone often referred to as cold.
2) His "influence" on the flowers leaves them as orderly as marble busts – which is to say, cold and inanimate. Orderly indeed!
3) He leaves them "Elegant – as Glass" – and we can picture the plants encased in a glass sheath, posed in stiff formality.
4) His nighttime visit concludes with the sun.
5) His "interview" with the flowers is "glistening", so we picture them sparkling with the rising sun.
6) The last stanza indicates that his visit is a fatal one. Whatever flower he has touched or kissed is as good as dead.

I've had a bougainvillea visited by this fellow so I know full well it is of old Jack Frost that Dickinson writes.
photo: Ian Kirk

She takes a darker tone in a poem some twenty years later where frost "beheads" a flower "at it's play":
In accidental power –
The blonde Assassin passes on –
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God

But in this poem there is no mention of God, and the flowers are kissed and caressed rather than beheaded. One could perhaps read into this poem the deadly paralysis of the cold lover whose kisses  leave behind a deeply wounded woman. But I don't think Dickinson is making a metaphor for heartless love as much as presenting the irony of the lovely frost that comes in the night and imparts a moment of still but fatal beauty.


  1. Riddles were a part of Victorian culture -- and these were often rhyming riddles. Lewis Carroll parodies the tradition with a riddle without an answer in Alice's tea party with the Mad Hatter ("Twinkle, twinkle little bat"). Here is another riddle that not only contains rhymes but also is reminiscent of the rhythm of some of EDs poems:

    "I've seen you where you never was,
    And where you ne-er will be;
    And yet you in that very same place
    May still be seen by me."

    Ans.: A reflection in a looking glass.

    ED drew from this tradition in her riddle poems -- but she isn't constrained by the form. words such as "influences" are original and powerful. The sounds in the first stanza -- particularly the "L" sounds are extraordinary. Her use of precise, beautiful descriptions of the physical world to imply and evoke reflection on life -- its intimacy with death (caresses, kiss) and the frozen beauty of the result of this union -- are masterful.

  2. As to riddle without answer, i meant to say ("Why is a raven like a writing desk").