If you were coming in the fall-- a Poetry Friday post
What has been lost, forgotten, or hidden about Emily Dickinson must be a lot. She's often depicted as a virginal poetess in white, but in the few photos of her, she's not in white. And I have reason to wonder about the virginal part. One has only to read the following poem to know that she was no complete recluse, and that she most certainly knew and understood passion, love and longing.
If you were coming in the Fall
by Emily Dickinson
If you were coming in the Fall,
I'd brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do a Fly.
If I could see you in a year,
I'd wind the months in balls—
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse—
If only Centuries, delayed,
I'd count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen's Land*.
If certain, when this life was out—
That your's and mine, should be—
I'd toss it yonder, like a Rind,
And take Eternity—
But now, uncertain of the length
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the Goblin Bee**—
That will not state—its sting.
*Van Diemen's Land: Tasmania.
** Goblin Bee: a term created by Dickinson
The five stanzas use Dickinson's familiar hymn metre, and are chock full of metaphor and simile. She is writing either to or about a loved one (and, most likely, a lover). It appears that she is not certain when they shall see one another again, a notion which goads (or pains) her "like the Goblin Bee—/That will not state—its sting." Some poets, including Robert Pinsky, read those last two lines as indicating not only the uncertainty of not knowing when the bee will sting (i.e., when the lover will be seen), but also as a sexual pun (where a sting is some form of penetration). Frankly, I think they go too far. I think that there's longing, and sexual longing, implicit in the poem, but that the bee is simply a representation of uncertainty: knowing something will happen, waiting for it to happen, but not knowing precisely when it will occur. Or, feeling the sting of pain, but not seeing the bee (if the term "goblin bee" represents a phantom bee, rather than an actual bee).
But I'll start at the beginning and work back through. In the first stanza, a single season is contemplated. It's summer (or, at earliest, spring), and Dickinson says that if she knew the loved one was coming in the fall, she'd swat summer aside like a fly.
In the second stanza, she contemplates what she'd do if she knew for certain the loved one would come in a year, using a metaphor based on balls of yarn: she'd "wind the months in balls", and then she'd put each ball into its own storage place to keep them from fusing together (or possibly, from tangling). She's not only indicating that she'd be occupying herself, but that she'd be counting the months, as well as trying to dispense with them quickly.
In the third stanza, where centuries are involved (real or representing lengthier amounts of time), Dickinson says she'd count them backwards in a form of finger play. I envision her holding her hands before her, one above the other, fingers extended, bending fingers one at a time from the top down, until the pinky on her left (or right) hand is last to bend, there, at the bottom. Were you to visualize a globe, "Van Diemen's Land" or Tasmania would be on the underside of the globe from where Emily lived, so when that last finger moves, it would be on the underside. Miss Emily was punny, I think.
In the fourth stanza, she indicates that if their souls were guaranteed to meet in the afterlife, she'd "toss it yonder, like a Rind". The "it" to which she refers is her life, which she says she'd readily forfeit if she were guaranteed to meet her loved one. Pretty heady, heavy stuff, no?
The final stanza gets us to the real crux of the matter. Because she doesn't know how much time will pass until she sees her loved one - as little as a season, as long as centuries - and because she isn't positive they'll meet in the afterlife, she is left to wait and fret: how long will it be? Knowing that they are to meet again but not knowing when goads her (causes her pain, as if by pricking). She feels the stinging pain of absence, and doesn't know when it will cease. Her sense of longing and agitation is nearly palpable, just like that Goblin Bee.