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18 August 2021

Not probable — The barest Chance —

Not probable — The barest Chance —
A smile too few — a word too much
And far from Heaven as the Rest —
The Soul so close on Paradise —

What if the Bird from journey far —
Confused by Sweets — as Mortals — are —
Forget the secret of His wing
And perish — but a Bough between —
Oh, Groping feet —
Oh Phantom Queen!
                                                    Fr678 (1863) J346

The poem begins as if expostulated or even hissed through clenched teeth: ‘Not probable’. That opening trochee (poetic foot of two stressed syllables) signals the speaker’s emotion. She feels shut out by her loved one for the thinnest of reasons. It is a poem of frustration and provides no hope that love will triumph in the end. 

What is improbable to the speaker is being cast back with the rest of the infatuates simply because of a missed smile or an extra word. The speaker downplays these small missteps, fairly or not. She had been ahead of the ‘Rest’, closer to ‘Heaven’ and now she is not. I find ‘Heaven’ coupled with the phrase ‘The Soul so close on Paradise’ almost predatory as if the speaker were circling the object of her desire, closer and closer until, right on the heel, she is rebuffed. Her response is not contrition, self examination, or renewed fervor, but a blaming of the beloved. 

To be fair, I can also, even more easily, read the first stanza as reminiscent of Dickinson’s poems about bees and the nectar they seek. In “Come slowly – Eden!” Dickinson’s circling Bee is ‘Bashful’, ‘fainting’ – and finally rewarded by entrance into the flower’s ‘chamber’ to be ‘lost in balms’ (F205). In “The Flower must not blame the Bee –” the bee is annoying, rather than bashful, seeking ‘his felicity / Too often at her door” (F235). It is is politely sent away – no balms for it! But then again, no other bees are to be admitted either. In a third bee/flower poem (F133), the speaker wonders whether the ‘lover Bee’ would really care so much for the Harebell flower once she yielded ‘her moat of pearl’. 

The lover in this poem is most like the annoying bee, I think; the beloved is likely beset with suitors. 

The second stanza is an abrupt change. While in the first stanza the speaker is seething to herself, the second stanza is a gentle analogy given directly to the beloved. It reminds me of Puck’s lines and role in A Midsummer’s Night Dream right646176000with the AA/BB/CC rhymes, the misleading romantic confusions, and the beloved not loving the right person. 

In this stanza the lover likens her situation to that of a bird that having flown from great distance finally arrives at the tree that bears its sought-after fruit. But so much sweetness confuses and overwhelms the bird who perishes when only a branch away from fulfillment. Like the poor bird, the lover, when in near proximity to her beloved, speaks and acts in some confusion – hence the missing smile and extra word, and thus the Sweets become unobtainable. 

The poem, having erupted in frustration and softened into analogy, ends with a gentle sigh. “Oh, Groping feet” evokes the poor bird, feeling its way from branch to branch, having forgotten how to fly. “Oh Phantom Queen” is sad resignation – and recognition of the Beloved’s elusiveness. David Preest draws attention to a letter (L177) Dickinson wrote to Sue, her sister-in-law, and likely beloved: “If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in.”

 I wonder which other Phantoms are in that box.  

scene from Midsummers Night Dream movie, Jean Muir, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney (1935)
Scene from A Midsummer's Night Dream,
Encyl. Britannica


  1. Forgive my confusion ... This must have been written, then, before Emily's sister-in-law was married? For Sue would not have been beset by suitors once she was married, right?

    1. Sue was married when this poem was written. As far as whether Dickinson had Sue in mind when writing this, we will never know. She certainly has written in retrospect before.

      She warned Higginson that the "I" in her poems was often not her but an imagined person. So while Preest's reference to the Sue letter is tantalizing I don't think we can draw conclusions from it. Judith Farr's The Passion of Emily Dickinson, however, emphasizes Dickinson's continued references to Sue in her 1860s poetry -- as well as letters that betray her continued love.