Emily Dickinson's "One Sister have I in our house"

Updated on January 26, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "One Sister have I in our house"

Susan Gilbert Dickinson became Emily Dickinson's sister-in-law, but she also served Emily's poetic talent by advising Emily about books to read and ideas to consider. Susan thus played an important rôle in Emily's pursuit of empirical knowledge. Susan had traveled extensively and had lived outside of Emily's New England bubble; thus she was able to help Emily broaden her horizons regarding worldly knowledge.

While the Austin Dickinson home, the "Evergreens," became the locus of tragedy, and likely Emily did not know the extent to which her adoptive sister might have shared in the blame for some of that discord, Emily remained beholden to Susan for the many useful and important aspects of art that Susan brought in to Emily's life. Thus, the following poem is Emily's tribute to her second sister who lived "a hedge away."

One Sister have I in our house

One Sister have I in our house,
And one, a hedge away.
There's only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

One came the road that I came —
And wore my last year's gown —
The other, as a bird her nest,
Builded our hearts among.

She did not sing as we did —
It was a different tune —
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June.

Today is far from Childhood —
But up and down the hills
I held her hand the tighter —
Which shortened all the miles —

And still her hum
The years among,

Deceives the Butterfly;
Still in her Eye
The Violets lie
Mouldered this many May.

I spilt the dew —
But took the morn —
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers —
Sue — forevermore!

Reading of "One Sister have I in our house"

Susan Dickinson

Source

Commentary

First Stanza: Two Sisters

One Sister have I in our house,
And one, a hedge away.
There's only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

The speaker begins by stating colorfully that she has two sisters: one lives in the same building as the speaker, while the other one reside in a nearby edifice that is "a hedge away." She then states that one sister is legally hers having been "recorded" as such, but she recognizes them both as her siblings.

Dickinson in this poem is once again employing her riddle-like style, but she never names her legal sister with whom she resides, while in the final line, she does reveal the name of the sister who lives nearby: "Sue — forevermore!"

"Sue" is Susan Gilbert whom Dickinson had known for many years, and who married Austin Dickinson, Emily's only brother. Emily adored her brother and she then came to love her sister-in-law and accepted her as a sister, as this poem portrays the tribute to Sue Gilbert.

Second Stanza: Contrasting Sisters

One came the road that I came —
And wore my last year's gown —
The other, as a bird her nest,
Builded our hearts among.

Continuing to contrast the differences that exist between the two "sisters" whom the speaker is claiming, the speaker reveals that she is a bit older than her natural-birth sister by saying that that sister was able to fit into the garments that the speaker had outgrown, "last year's gown." And the natural, legal sister has traveled the same "road" that the speaker has traveled.

The adopted sister came into their lives like a bird that builds its nest among the leaves. But this sister claimed their hearts, and thus the speaker can now feel comfortable calling her sister.

Third Stanza: Seeing New Englandly

She did not sing as we did —
It was a different tune —
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June.

The new sister also has a somewhat different style of viewing life as well as a different way of speaking from the Dickinson's. Emily once said "I see—New Englandly—." And she, of course, spoke New Englandly.

While Susan Gilbert was born in Massachusetts, she was raised from age 5 in New York, thus she would not have acquired the same Massachusetts (New England) accent that the Dickinson's would have employed.

Nevertheless, the speaker has enjoyed the speaking, singing of the newly added sister, as she compares that new sister's accent to the June bumble bee. That sound at first sings the mind but becomes a welcome sound because it means that summer is here.

Fourth Stanza: A Pleasant Trek

Today is far from Childhood —
But up and down the hills
I held her hand the tighter —
Which shortened all the miles —

The speaker now reveals that she is reporting from a period of time that has moved them all way beyond "Childhood." And the speaker thus reports that having trekked through the landscape with her new sister and "held her hand" even tighter as the years have flown by has made the speaker's life more pleasant.

The miles of travel through life can long and tedious, but having a pleasant companion can make those miles seem less long and tedious. The new sister has done that for the speaker, and thus this tribute to that sister.

Fifth Stanza: Retaining an Eye for Beauty

And still her hum
The years among,
Deceives the Butterfly;
Still in her Eye
The Violets lie
Mouldered this many May.

The speaker continues to remark about the sister's speaking. That sister has the ability to fit in to the New England way of things remarkably well. She is so well suited to the New England way that the natives may even think she grew up a New England resident.

The speaker then reports that although many months of May have come and gone, the sister's eye for detecting the natural beauty in flowers or little violet blooms remains in tact; the "Violet" thus becomes a symbol for all of nature in these lines.

Sixth Stanza: Achieving Harmony and Balance

I spilt the dew —
But took the morn —
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers —
Sue — forevermore!

The speaker finally reports that she became aware of her great admiration for her adoptive sister as morning seemed to overtake her in thought that was as gentle and wet as the "dew." These thoughts that watered her growing plant of musing caused the speaker to pick out this remarkable friend who has served the speaker's life like a sister.

The speaker calls that new sister a "star" for the light of knowledge the sister has provided the speaker. The appreciative speaker vows to continue to respect and honor that relationship that has grown between the two writers.

Susan Dickinson Also a Writer

Susan Gilbert Dickinson was also a writer and had advised Emily on a wide variety of topics important to poets. Emily once quipped to Susan, "With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living."

Emily also called such praise strange, yet poets know that knowledge is a priceless gift, and they understand that honoring the giver of such gifts is necessary for a balanced life. Dickinson was completely aware of the necessity of striving for and achieving harmony in her life, and she took every precaution to arrive safely on the shores and harmony and balance.

Lavinia Dickinson

Source

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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