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31 January 2015

You cannot put a Fire out —

You cannot put a Fire out —
A Thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a Fan —
Upon the slowest Night —

You cannot fold a Flood —
And put it in a Drawer —
Because the Winds would find it out —
And tell your Cedar Floor —
                              F583 (1863)  J530

This is an odd little poem. It's easy to take away the notion that the subject is passion or creativity, yet the images themselves tauntingly resist paraphrase or logical analysis.
        First, you can put a fire out. And something burning might well go out on a slow night (whatever that is, precisely), especially if there is nothing to fan the flames. Second, while it is clear that floods can't be folded away in drawers, the reason given is that "the Winds would find it out". Clearly the flood wouldn't stay in the drawer whether or not the winds discovered it and told the floor.
"DancingFlames" by Oscar 

        But while the metaphors defy a logical unpacking, it is easy enough to substitute passion or creativity for both Fire and Flood. I'm going to conflate both qualities into Poetry, for Dickinson's opus has both in abundance. Such poetry ignites the poet, burning within despite any lack of fan or stimulation. Such poetry is like a flood. Poets, like Dickinson herself, might fold the poems away in a drawer, but they will be found out as surely as the flood will spill upon the floor. 

I find it easy to read the poem's subject as passionate love. It is hard indeed to put that fire out and it might burn all the stronger on quiet nights. Neither is it easy to keep secret. Despite all efforts, the prying wind will "find it out" and tell. 

Dickinson draws on homely, female images for this sketch. It is the homemaker or housekeeper who tends the fire, the women who fold things away in drawers and worry about the floors. The paradox at the heart of the poem is the disparity between the domestic scene and the raw power of fire and flood.

Both stanzas are in standard ballad form. The "f" alliterations in the important words help unify it: fire, fan, fold, flood find, and floor.


  1. I love this poem. The juxtaposition of elemental forces (fire, water, wind) and domestic images is very powerful.

    I love the image of a flood folded in a drawer and the fact that the floor is cedar -- a wood that is resistant to rot and water. There is a sense of great, uncontained natural forces -- seen through the eyes of a housewife worried about damage to her floor. Funny and beautiful!

  2. Such a resource. I've just sent the blog link to my closest po-friends. Thank you.

    Do you know Janet Holmes's book "The . . . ms of . m . . y . . . kin . . ."? erasures of ED poems. Recommend.



    1. Thanks, Carol. I hadn't heard of Holme's book. It looks very interesting!

  3. There is something strange about the image of a cedar floor. First, cedar is way too soft to be used as flooring. Second, cedar is extremely flammable, light and dry. Third, a cedar drawer, or chest, is a place to put clothing away for long storage.
    I appreciate your thoughts on Fire and Flood as surges of creativity. She uses elemental images so effectively, saying so much in so few words.

  4. And of course ED did leave the flood of her poems in her bedroom drawer.

    1. Nice. And the winds did find it out and we are the cedar floor.

  5. There is something supernatural about creativity and even passion. Both defy logic as does this poem.

  6. I think cedar floor is the perfect term to use. It represents both the drawer and the flooded forest floor.

  7. I wonder if the 'Cedar Floor' might also refer to the cedar-lined treasure chamber in Priam's palace (from Homer's Iliad), which treasures are later used as ransom.

  8. I think the poem might be about something unpleasant. Dickinson wants to put the fire out but can’t. Perhaps some ruminative thoughts that are out of her control and she feels overwhelmed.

  9. Given ED’s poem production rate of one a day during 1863, she kept her furnace at white heat 24/7. No need to fan that flame, even on the slowest night. She was on a killing roll, in the zone, and no drawer could confine it. She knew word would get out, somehow, that she made miracles, and you can tell that to your cedar floor.

    Which reminds me of a tiny wilderness island we camped on years ago. The only place for “taking care of business” was a small clump of cedars, which I recommended to my companions. One, a retired English professor, instantly replied, “Would that be a one cedar or a two cedar?”. We flooded that cedar floor.