Emily Dickinson's "Distrustful of the Gentian"

Updated on June 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 "Distrustful of the Gentian"

Although it seems that a very important word has been omitted from the poem, the drama continues unabated. It would make an interesting study to add a guessed-at word and then see how it might change the outcome of the poem's force. I will venture the guess that the word she meant to supply referred to her mood.

Likely she thought, "Weary for my mood," sounded too ordinary, too mundane, so she meant to come back and add a more dramatic term. But then alas! she either never found the time nor the term, so it gets left double dashed, imposing a quizzical conundrum on her future audience.

Distrustful of the Gentian

Distrustful of the Gentian —
And just to turn away,
The fluttering of her fringes
Chid my perfidy —
Weary for my ———
I will singing go —
I shall not feel the sleet — then —
I shall not fear the snow.

Flees so the phantom meadow
Before the breathless Bee —
So bubble brooks in deserts
On Ears that dying lie —
Burn so the Evening Spires
To Eyes that Closing go —
Hangs so distant Heaven —
To a hand below.

Reading of "Distrustful of the Gentian"

Commentary

The speaker is lamenting the end of summer—a theme that Dickinson returned to again and again.

First Stanza: A Mysterious Weariness

Distrustful of the Gentian —
And just to turn away,
The fluttering of her fringes
Chid my perfidy —
Weary for my ———
I will singing go —
I shall not feel the sleet — then —
I shall not fear the snow.

The first issue that accosts a reader of this poem is that it appears the poet failed to supply the object in the prepositional phrase "for my ———" in the fifth line but instead had simply placed a longer dash placeholder. It does seem that she intended to come back and add a word but perhaps never got around to it. On her handwritten version appear along side the place-holding long dash what appear to be the letters "a n o w," but those letters could have been placed there by an editor. The handwriting does not seem to be that of the poet.

The speaker begins by professing her distrust of the gentian flower; her distrust causes her to turn from the flower. And she says that those fluttering fringes of the gentian rebuked her own untrustworthiness, likely for her admission of distrust of the flower. This mutual lack of trust between the speaker and the flower causes the speaker to become "weary," but because she did not state the object other weariness, the reader must guess what is specifically causing the weariness.

The speaker with this unspecified weariness claims that she will continue on, and she will do so "singing." This singing indicates that she will enliven her mood and keep it high through this cheerful act. She then asserts that through this act of singing she will not experience the negativity of "sleet," indicating the season of winter. To further the winter implication, she adds that she will "not fear the snow."

The speaker in this little drama is fashioning her preparation for the end of nice, warm summer weather as she tries to ease herself into readying her mind and heart for the onset of a cold, hard winter.

Second Stanza: Losing a Favored Season

Flees so the phantom meadow
Before the breathless Bee —
So bubble brooks in deserts
On Ears that dying lie —
Burn so the Evening Spires
To Eyes that Closing go —
Hangs so distant Heaven —
To a hand below.

The second stanza continues to find the speaker painting the end of summer with masterful strokes. She reports that the meadow is "flee[ing]," and the bee has become "breathless" at the event. Of course, the meadow is a simple metonymy for all that the the meadow holds in terms of green grasses, colorful flowers wild-life such as bees and birds. All those fresh, summer colors will soon turn to a winter brown, and essentially be gone because it will have changed so much. The meadow is thus phantom-like because its qualities will seem to become mere ghosts of themselves as they can no longer remain full-bodied as in her beloved summer.

The speaker finds her happy summer-self dying like one who is thirsting in a desert while phantom brooks seem to bubble nearby. The desert mirage has presented itself, and the poor traveler lies dying with the sound of a babbling water stream flowing through them his field of hearing. And for the eyes, those eyes that are "closing," the spires of evening seem to burn all the more bright. That time of day when shadows loom becomes more engulfed in darkness as those shadows loom larger in fall and winter.

The speaker then avers that to those on earth "Heaven" seems so distant, too distant for the hand to grasp. As summer continues to fade, the speaker becomes painfully aware that the next summer is quite far off. Indeed, it is another fall, winter, and spring away.

The speaker has focused heavily on the sense of sight in this little drama, but she has also included the sense of sound with image of the bee and the brook. She also includes the act of grasping with a hand. As she reaches out her hand to touch the beauty of the seasons, she finds the dying of summer a particularly poignant event; thus she has again created her little drama to play out her melancholy of losing that favored season.

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.

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.

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

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    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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