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28 March 2020

Some such Butterfly be seen

Some such Butterfly be seen
On Brazilian Pampas —
Just at noon — no later — Sweet —
Then — the License closes —

Some such Spice — express – and pass —
Subject to Your Plucking —
As the Stars — You knew last Night —
Foreigners — This Morning —
                                                            F661 (1863)   J541

This poem buries a sharp edge within its lilting meter. It seems at first like a poetical and philosophical comment on life: what is once beautiful, fragrant, and mysterious becomes lost, diminished, or altered over time. We are attracted to what is rare and ephemeral and should not even try to capture or categorize it.
A real Brazilian Pampas butterfly: Stichelia pelotensis
            Yet the 'Sweet' and the 'Your' suggest the speaker is writing to someone specific about herself and their  relationship. The speaker is reclusive, like a shy and rare butterfly. To see it requires diligence and patience. She offers a gentle warning to her 'Sweet' that if she seeks this butterfly she must be present at a certain place by a certain time – before 'the License closes'.  
            She also reminds Sweet to not be greedy. While Sweet might enjoy the fragrance of a flower on its stem for as long as the flower lives, distilling it for perfume kills the flower. It might be best to take what fragrance the flower freely gives.

Dickinson depicts perfume-making more explicitly, even brutally, a few years later:
Essential oils are wrung:  
The attar from the rose  
Is not expressed by suns alone,  
It is the gift of screws.                  (F772)    

In the last lines of the poem, the speaker suggests that what seemed true and real and present by night might be quite different by morning – or not seen at all. Sweet should take what is true in the moment and not build expectations into it – especially if the moment involves the night sky with its mysterious and romantic stars.

I'm not sure if trying to fit these images into Dickinson's biography is useful. I don't think they really fit, for one thing, and it isn't necessary to fit them for another. The seeker and the elusive sought, the perfumer and the used up petals, the nighttime lover versus the daytime are all common literary tropes. Dickinson would have encountered them in Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Wordsworth.  

15 March 2020

I took my Power in my Hand —

I took my Power in my Hand —
And went against the World —
'Twas not so much as David — had —
But I — was twice as bold —

I aimed my Pebble — but Myself
Was all the one that fell —
Was it Goliah — was too large —
Or was myself — too small?
                                                            Fr660 (1863) J540

After experiencing a significant failure we might wonder if the problem lay in our shortcomings or in the scope of the problem itself. Dickinson poses the question here in a tone of rueful whimsy. It's the voice of a woman looking back and shaking her head. She seems to like that her younger self was valiant like David – and bolder than David, yet confesses that while David prevailed, she has fallen.

The famous biblical David-versus-Goliath story unfolds 3000 years ago. A shepherd boy brings provisions to his brothers who as part of the Israelite army are gathered for battle against the Philistines. But the army is paralyzed by Goliath, a mighty and gigantic warrior who daily challenges them to produce a champion for single combat. Day after day the Israelites lose heart. David sees all this, steps up with his slingshot, and slays the giant with one stone.
Michelangelo's David stands ready
with slingshot in one hand and stone
in the other.
         The speaker's Goliath is the World. Her 'pebble' is her unspecified Power. The analogy might simply be Dickinson aiming the force of her poetry against a restrictive religion, and a conformist, paternalistic society. It might also be her unique poetry against a field of those she may have considered lesser contemporary poets. Or it might be something else entirely. The poem is open to interpretation. Dickinson, as she often does, leaves explanatory details out, creating universality.

What I find  most interesting about the poem is its claim about boldness. David was pretty bold, but he had one specific enemy in Goliath. And although David's fighting experience was limited to the lions and bears that preyed on his flocks, the experience was precisely useful. If he could bring down big predators at a distance with a slingshot, he could bring down a Goliath. Distance was key. No one wanted to engage the giant in a sword and shield battle.
        Dickinson, on the other hand, took on the World.  This would require much more boldness than David needed because the World, even a limited aspect of it (such as poetry or New England), is infinitely complex and dynamic. Her Power could not be as precisely targeted.

That leads to the central question of the poem about the cause of failure. Can blame even be apportioned in terms of bigness or smallness? David's success shows that to be a false choice after he used a slingshot against a giant. But I don't think Dickinson meant the question to be parsed so carefully. Once again she waives the details so we can wonder along with her if in our own failures and disappointments we might have prevailed if only we had been … bigger, smarter, stronger.