Friday, November 14, 2008

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.


Little Willow said...


Kelly Fineman said...


Kristina ( said...

heyy. i have a question. for class i had to analyze this poem in my group. i had the second stanza. After analyzing it and completely thinking i totally understand, my teacher simply said i was wrong. i felt so defeated. I know there can't be any completely accurate meaning for a poem ( especially because there's no way of asking Emily herself). can you please tell me if my analysis is completely wrong

I'd wind the months in balls-
And put them each in separate Drawers

i compared "wind[ing] the months in balls" to
winding moth balls.
since before Emily's time even until today, moth balls are put into drawers to eat/repel moths that eat wool.
by winding the months into balls, it's as if because she wants the time to go, she wants the months to be somewhat eaten.

is it so wrong?

Kelly Fineman said...

Hey Kristina - There's never one "right" or "wrong" meaning to a poem, but you may want to have a look at an article on moth balls. They are solid, not wound, and are made of pressed camphor (I believe), a strong-smelling substance to deter moths. So it would be hard to say that she intended to create moth balls, since they aren't wound up. Probably that's where your teacher's objection came in?

It's always tough when dealing with any poem, but Dickinson is extra-tricky because her poems sound like they should be easy, but they're not. I hope you won't be mad at poor Emily Dickinson, though, just because you had a run-in with your teacher!

buzee bee said...

Have been teaching this poem from four years ,it remains one of my favorites . The petulant image construed by the child -like subtraction, which leads the poet or lovelorn lady to count the passing centuries is an unusual one. As she anxiously subtracts her little finger dips down right to the edge of her palm , Dickinson 's visual imagery makes clear that the palm is a globe and the little finger moves to the farthest place Van diemens land ,Tasmania.