Emily Dickinson's "A sepal, petal, and a thorn"

Updated on June 10, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Introduction and Text of "A sepal, petal, and a thorn"

This poem begins as a riddle but concludes by identifying the speaker and subject of her narrative. The speaker of this cinquain offers a brief description of a special environment observed by a seemingly outside observer. However, the observer becomes clear when she is named and identified in the final surprising line.

A sepal, petal, and a thorn

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer's morn —
A flask of Dew — A Bee or two —
A Breeze — a caper in the trees —
And I'm a Rose!

Reading of "A sepal, petal, and a thorn"

Commentary

This awe-inspiring little drama demonstrates the poet's amazing ability to observe fine details and then create finely crafted poems.

First Movement: The Crowds of Summer

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer's morn —

The speaker begins her announcement by focusing on key elements in a special environment which include the parts of a flowering plant. Most, if not all flowers, possess a physical part called a "sepal" or the green supporting element that holds the bloom and protects it as it keeps the flower of the plant intact.

The speaker then adds the important part of the flower called the "petal." The petals conjoined make up the distinct flower itself. It provides the particular shape and coloring that each flower affords to offer its beauty to the human eye.

The speaker then offers what at first seems to be an odd member of this group, when she adds "thorn." Not many flowers possess thorns, but the mind of the audience is not permitted to dwell upon this odd addition, for the speaker adds the marvelous and pleasurable descriptor involving the time element for her announcement: it is summer and the speaker frames the time as containing all that has been described, and then she places them together, "[u]pon a common summer's morn."

Thus far, the speaker has offered only two parts of a flowering plant with the addition of the strange and dangerous sounding element, the thorn. But she has mitigated her simple list by placing those flowering parts at the wonderful time of year known a summer, and further beautified the environment by making it during the early part of the day or "morn[ing]."

Second Stanza: Unity in Rime

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

A flask of Dew — A Bee or two —
A Breeze — a caper in the trees —

The second movement of this marvelously simple, yet complicated, narration continues the catalogue-like listing of natural elements: dew, bee, breeze, trees. But to her drama she has added a fantastically adept rime-scheme that holds the element fast together in an almost divine unity.

The "dew" is held in a "flask"; thus she pronounces her creation, "[a] flask of Dew." A flask is a simple bottle-like container, usually associated with alcoholic beverages. The speaker's employment of such a container instead of "glass" or "cup" quite deliberately contributes to the intoxication of the beauty and unity of such a summer morning, which has motivated the speaker to enumerate the fine details upon which she is concentrating.

The second half of this line, "A Bee or two" completes the rime unification that sparks the observation that yields the intoxication caused by the beauty of the natural elements; therefore arises, "A flask of Dew — A Bee or two —," whose pleasurable rime rings in the mind as it presents the image of a couple of bees hovering a beautiful flowering plant early in the day.

The second line of the movement presents an almost uncanny repetition of force through its image and rime as the first line: again, the speaker has created a pleasurable rime that unifies the elements with the sparks of divine unity, "A Breeze — a caper in the trees." As "Dew" and "two" offered a perfect riming set, so do "Breeze" and "trees."

The second movement then creates a little drama that could almost stand alone because it has offered an image that implies a flower, calling it a "flash of Dew" over which hover a pair of bees, set in an area where a breeze is blowing and whipping up a "caper" in the surrounding trees. The employment of the term "caper" offers a magically wonderful element of mischief that the speaker infuses into her drama of a simple flower.

Third Movement: Rose Reporting

And I'm a Rose!

In the final movement, the speaker announces her identity. She is a "Rose." Little wonder that the accuracy and fidelity to detail have been so brilliantly portrayed; it has been the flower herself who is reporting. Unlike so many of Dickinson's riddle poems in which she never condescends to name the subject of the riddle, this one proudly announces who the speaker is in direct terms.

After describing her environment of finely crafted elements—sepal, petal, morn, dew, bees, breeze, trees—the speaker then affords her audience the ultimate unity by stating directly and unequivocally who she is. With this revelation, the mystery of the "thorn" in the first line is solved.

This masterfully crafted little drama offers the Dickinson canon one of its main features that demonstrate the ability of the poet to observe and create little masterful dramas out of her observations. Her ability to make words dance as well as fill out images remains a staple in the Dickinson tool-kit of poetic expression.

Emily 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.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 months ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you for sharing your story, Rinita. Yes, Dickinson has always been a favorite of mine. Her attention to the smallest detail reveals an amazing mind. And her ability to create fascinating and insightful little dramas from her observations of just her own immediate home environment demonstrates a rare, creative genius. She has taken her place among the most brilliant poets of all time.

    • Senoritaa profile image

      Rinita Sen 

      2 months ago

      Dickinson is the reason I became a serious poet. I remember reading this particular piece decades ago, when I joined one of the very first social networking poetry clubs (on Orkut). Many of her very short poems tell us how deeply someone can convey thoughts through brevity, if they really want to. Thank you for sharing this.

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