May less appear
Than sacrifice, and cease —
Forever might be short, I thought to show —
And so I pieced it, with a flower, now.
F618 (1863) J434
Dickinson borrows from the sonnet form here, and perhaps from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most quoted poem, "How Do I Love Thee?" (Sonnet 43). One Dickinson scholar I read, Judith Farr, believes this is a poem for Sue, a response to Sue's rejection of or inability to return Emily's love on Emily's terms. The diction is so abbreviated that it could be read in various ways, but this is how I (finally) came to paraphrase it: "After years, my love seems less like love than sacrifice, and so I may give up. But, dear, if "Forever" is to be cut short, I want to show the love I still have now – and so I send this flower to prolong it even if just for a bit."
|Piecework: adding and extending
The flower is a symbol of the ephemeral, serving as a reminder of how people and love change over time. It can also be a symbol or even a memorial of true and eternal love. Dickinson's flower can be seen in both ways.
The sonnet form is traditionally a vehicle for love poetry, and although this is a short poem, the first four lines could be read as two iambic pentameter lines (sonnet meter). The last two lines make a rhymed couplet suitable for a love sonnet. By dividing the first lines, Dickinson is able to emphasize what would otherwise be internal rhymes: Year, appear, and dear.
The division also allows the important third line to stand alone. The sibilence of 'sacrifice' and 'cease' create a sense of melancholy and dwindling. 'Cease' is the only unrhymed line ending in the poem. Placed as it is in the center of the poem, it also provides a foreshadowed ending. We see the lover looking ahead to what seems a natural end to a rather one-sided relationship. Yet with the following 'However', we see the flower as a love gesture. Yes, things will change, but not right now. I'm pretty sure Dickinson used the word 'pieced' not only to suggest an extension added on but to hearken back to its slant rhyme 'cease'. While the year-after-year love might cease, it can still be pieced bit by bit.
If Dickinson sent this poem with a flower to Sue, it must have been a poignant, almost bittersweet remembrance.