Search This Blog

05 June 2015

You'll know Her — by Her Foot —

You'll know Her — by Her Foot —
The smallest Gamboge Hand
With Fingers — where the Toes should be —
Would more affront the sand —

Than this Quaint Creature's Boot —
Adjusted by a stem —
Without a Button — I could vouch —
Unto a Velvet Limb —

You'll know Her — by Her Vest —
Tight fitting — Orange — Brown —
Inside a Jacket duller —
She wore when she was born —

Her Cap is small — and snug —
Constructed for the Winds —
She'd pass for Barehead — short way off —
But as she closer stands —

So finer 'tis than Wool —
You cannot feel the seam —
Nor is it clasped unto of Band —
Nor held upon — of Brim —

You'll know Her — by Her Voice —
At first — a doubtful Tone —
A sweet endeavor — but as March
To April — hurries on —

She squanders on your Head
Such Arguments of Pearl —
You beg the Robin in your Brain
To keep the other — still —
                                    F604 (1863)  J634

Victorians by all accounts enjoyed puzzles. Dickinson enjoyed them, too, and wrote several fine puzzle poems. This one carries on as a puzzle until the very end when it is made explicit that the "Quaint Creature" is a robin.
         The first clue is a description of the foot. "Gamboge" is a saffron yellow pigment made from the resin of the gamboge tree, indigenous to Southeast Asia. It can also simply mean "yellow" or "golden". In the rather curious imagery of the second and third lines, I imagine Dickinson thinking about Chinese writing. She might be imagining a delicate golden hand writing delicate characters in the sand – and deem them larger and clumsier than the dainty tracks of a robin.
         Dickinson continues with the foot, next casting it as a boot connected by a stem to a "Velvet Limb". A ladies' Victorian boot would typically be fastened by buttons, but the poet is ready to "vouch" that this creature's boot has no such thing. It's as if Dickinson had camped out on her lawn inspecting robins as they passed. The soft tibial feathers on the birds' thighs would be the "Velvet" of the limb.
American robin, female
photo by Colin Talcroft
         The poem's next clue, and for many reader's the tip off, is the orange/brown "Vest" of the creature and its duller-colored "Jacket". Most people are familiar with Robin Redbreast – and the paler rust color of the female. And while juvenile robins have a spotted breast, their back and wing feathers are always a sort of charcoal color.
         Three stanzas are given to the bird's "Cap": it fits so snugly you wouldn't know she wears one – until you are quite close. Then you can see the demarcation of head from body that makes the cap. Still, as the boot has no button, this cap has no brim or band.
         The point of the poem, though, isn't the puzzle but in the robin's song; all the other little details are but preparatory.  The first robins of spring have but a "doubtful Tone" – although Dickinson graciously grants that it is a "sweet endeavor". But by the end of April the bird has come into such eloquent abundance of song that she "squanders" them on the listener. They are "Arguments of Pearl", but at last it is too much. The listener wants to enjoy the songs in her head for a while, let the inner robin sing – and hopefully drown out the exuberant real bird.

I can't help but think that Dickinson is writing a bit tongue-in-cheek about herself throughout the poem. In one of her first letters to her "Preceptor", Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she describes herself as birdlike and with hair the same reddish brown as the female robin: " small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur". As to the Gamboge hand, Higginson once likened her handwriting to bird tracks. The opening line of the poem, "You'll know Her – by Her Foot – " may well be a reference to Higginson's comment that her meter, her poetic foot, was "spasmodic".
         But as I said earlier, the point is the song. Dickinson may be assessing her development as a poet. She begins conventionally and sweetly enough, but as the years went by she began producing pages and pages of poetry, her "Arguments of Pearl". To a reader familiar with the Bible, and Emily Dickinson was very familiar with it, this recalls Matthew's warning about casting "your pearls before swine" (Matthew 7:6). It's a lighthearted comment, one teasing herself as much as ruing her lack of appreciative audience. Perhaps she was thinking of Higginson here, too, imagining that she was squandering poems on him while he was still trying to digest earlier once.
         More than that, though, I suspect that "the Robin in your Brain" is her own songs. Don't drown them out, Robin, she admonishes, with your beautiful singing. I have my own to sing.


  1. I love the connection with Higginson here and the spasmotic meter. We really do come to know Dickinson by her metric foot, which is oh so regular and irregular at once, and always playing at the tension between the two. And the handwriting as bird tracks! And even the quote referring to herself as a bird is germane here. This is some good literary detective work, Susan.

    Because of the poem "After great pain..." wherein Dickinson uses "feet" to refer to both literal and metric feet, I've come to look for that play on words in her poems, but I missed it here until you pointed it out.

    One thing I love about reading ED (and good writing in general) is the wealth of metaphor it gives you through which to see the world. I'll listen next spring for the robins' "doubtful tone", and I'm sure the terrific phrase "arguments of pearl" will occur to me too as I listen to the song.

    I've been thinking lately about the array of car honking and construction noises and ice cream truck jingles that end up drowning out my own inner songs, so this poem strikes home. I listened to a podcast called "twenty thousand hertz" this morning, an episode about John Cage's piece "4' and 33"" in which the performer plays nothing (or, technically, plays rests) for the duration of the piece. The idea of the piece is that while it is "played" you listen to the sounds around you, or maybe to your own thoughts, and THAT becomes the music. I've always loved the piece, but what I didn't know before the podcast informed me is that Cage initially tried to sell the piece to Muzak as a kind of protest against the piped-in canned music you hear everywhere. It's worth a listen.

    1. I'd never thought about Dickinson's word play with 'feet' -- except for the specific use in this poem. Thanks for that! I'm glad I reread this poem if only for the seasonal development of Robin's song from 'doubtful tone' to 'arguments of pearl'. So descriptive, so ringing true -- so playful, memorable, fond, and true.

    2. Yes, in "After great pain" there is the line "The Feet, mechanical, go round". Up until these lines the meter is extremely regular, but after these lines they become wildly disjointed, tripping.

  2. It's well worth noting that there is an alternative ending for this poem, one which is radically different.

    Deny she is a Robin -- now --
    And you're an infidel.

    I like that ending better.

    It's mind bending to think that such a long poem (by Emily's standards) could be turned into such a different poem altogether with a different closing couplet.

    Also, alternative words for "Argument" include Threnodies, Extacies, and Revenues". I like Revenues a lot, especially with the alternative ending, but "arguments" is too good to lose.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Gamboge is a deep yellow pigment derived from a species of tree that grows in Cambodia. Its name derives from an ancient name for Cambodia, Camboja. Chinese artists have used the yellow-gold pigment since 800 AD. EDLex defines Gamboge as “Yellow; golden”. (Wiki)

    ED’s close descriptive details of legs (stem), breast (vest), shoulders (Jacket), and especially head (cap) of an American Robin suggest she inspected a window-killed bird in her hand. However, Robins have brown-grey feet and rarely stand in sand. In her woods walks or garden she may have seen migrating Yellow Warblers or Blackpoll Warblers, which do have yellow feet.

    The last two lines of this poem are the puzzle to me:

    “You beg the Robin in your Brain
    To keep the other — still —”

    Why would ED want the Robin in her Brain to keep the tree bird still? I would want it the other way round:

    “You beg the Robin in the tree
    To keep your Brain bird still —"

  5. Stanza 1 reminds me of ED’s hilarious verbal cartoon of the prima donna Robin ballerina hopping on one claw toward her mesmerized Boston audience, the other claw held in perfect penché position high overhead. ('I cannot dance upon my Toes', F381, 1862)