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18 December 2016

'Tis Customary as we part

'Tis Customary as we part
A Trinket — to confer —
It helps to stimulate the faith
When Lovers be afar —

'Tis various — as the various taste —
Clematis — journeying far —
Presents me with a single Curl
Of her Electric Hair —
                       Fr628 (1863)  J400

I love this. The amazing two-word image in the last line startles the dry poem into smiling drollery. It has particular charm for the gardener familiar with the wayward habits of the clematis vine.

Dickinson describes the parting of lovers in the academic tone of an anthropologist. In the custom of her land, trinkets are conferred (not 'given' or even 'bestowed') when one takes leave of a lover to "stimulate the faith". Could the giving of a love token to a departing lover be phrased any more clinically?
        The second stanza begins in the same dry and concise vein. The love token is chosen based on personal taste. One person might give, say, a lock of hair; another a slim volume of verse. In the sixth line, however, Dickinson abruptly abandons the general in favor of the specific, signaling that the poem up to this point is mere introduction: a prologue to the essential scene where Clematis presents the poet with a parting gift.

The Electric Curls of the Clematis vine
Anyone even vaguely familiar with clematis vines can visualize the scene immediately. Many clematis varieties are pruned down quite severely each year. New growth can shoot up twenty feet or even more in one season. So yes, the vine might well present her gardener with a lock of her hair before continuing her journey far up the barn or elm tree. While Judith Farr in The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, p.256, includes Thomas H. Johnson's suggestion that this poem "may have been composed to accompany a gift of a clematis blossom for a departing friend", I think this interpretation requires unnecessary torture of the poem. It is the clematis that is traveling; the clematis that presents the token.
        Further, it is not the flower that Clematis gives, but rather the seed-like fruit, the achene, that flattens out into a long, feathery, curling plume. When their beautiful petals fall,  clematis flowers leave behind entrancing puffs of these achenes. They do indeed look as if a mild electric current had tossed them into unruly curls.

The regularity of the meter of this poem along with the precise and neutral diction create the perfect setting for the dynamic image of the clematis' "Electric Hair". Nothing else is alive in the poem. There are customs and trinkets and some abstract faith that benefits from stimulation. There are tastes involved but they are simply summarized as 'various' without benefit of example. Consequently, that electric curl almost sizzles when Dickinson drops it into this static and abstract tableau.

Several hard 'C's help bind the poem together: Customary, confer, Clematis, and Curl. The rhyming is also fairly tight: confer/afar/far/hair, while part and Curl support the 'r' sounds in those slant rhymes.

 I find the poem tightly composed, darling and delightful.


  1. Thanks for the botany lesson and the picture of the clematis achene!

  2. Could it be about goodbye from a friend who was going to war or even from Sue?

  3. THIS is why this blog is so essential. Not only would I have not known the traveling propensity of the clematis otherwise, but I also would not have dreamed that the clematis does indeed look like curls of electric hair. That picture is perfect. Now, I'll never see climatis again without thinking of it as electric, and moreover without thinking of Emily's own electric hair. I saw curls of it at the Morgan Library once and felt amazed that it still retained its auburn sheen.

    This poem hearkens back to the going-away poem F618 (from this same fascicle #29), the one about using a flower to piece forever to now. Like that flower, here the clematis climbing up on her way to forever leaves a memento behind.

    And though I would guess that Emily did send this poem with a few curls of clematis to some friend, it transcends that particular occasion. It's a terrific quality of Emily's Occasional Poems, how they nearly always transcend the occasion. It's a rare poem of hers, if there ARE any, that doesn't in some way include future readers in its fold.

    Here, she leaves us with a trinket to stimulate our love from afar, a poem as electric and curling as the climatis that was left for her.

  4. The common name of Clematis is Virgin’s Bower, which ED undoubtedly knew.

    “The clematis, the favoured flower, Which boasts the name of virgin[’s]-bower.” (W. Scott, 1810, Lady of Lake).

  5. Speaking of “Emily's own electric hair, [which] still retained its auburn sheen” (d scribe, November 28, 2023), the last person to see her face and hair was Higginson, [who] “gazed into the casket before it was closed for the service: E.D.’s face, a wondrous restoration of youth – she is 55 & looked 30, not a gray hair or wrinkle, & perfect peace on the beautiful brow. There was a little bunch of violets at the neck & one pink cypripedium; the sister Vinnie put in two heliotropes by her hand ‘to take to Judge Lord.’”

    (The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda. 1960, Vol. II, p. 475)