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Emily Dickinson's "I Robbed the Woods"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson  -  This daguerrotype circa 1847 at age 17 is likely the only authentic, extant image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerrotype circa 1847 at age 17 is likely the only authentic, extant image of the poet.

Introduction and Text of "I robbed the Woods"

Upon being faced with such a bizarre claim—"I robbed the Woods"—the reader has his/her curiosity immediately fetched to the forefront. How on earth can an individual rob a woods?—one has to wonder.

But then this is Emily Dickinson, whose mastery at confiding ideas in words leaves little doubt that that claims is exactly what happened—whether it ends up literal or figurative, although, one will likely bet on the figurative.

Emily Dickinson was a master at riddle-making, and in her poem, "I robbed the Woods," her speaker’s metaphorical comparison of keen observation and mental note-taking to committing a robbery reveals how complex and insightful was her poet mind.

Her metaphor functions almost exactly as a riddle functions: she lays out details and as they stack up, she allows her listening audience/readers to guess what her exact vehicle is.

While there is no one item to which the speaker is referring in "I robbed the Woods"—as in "I like to see it lap the Miles" and "It sifts from Leaden Sieves"—her metaphorical comparison itself becomes the target of the riddle-like device.

I robbed the Woods

I robbed the Woods –
The trusting Woods.
The unsuspecting Trees
Brought out their Burs and mosses
My fantasy to please.
I scanned their trinkets curious – I grasped – I bore away –
What will the solemn Hemlock –
What will the Oak tree say?

Reading of "I robbed the Woods"


Something like a riddle, Dickinson’s speaker’s metaphor of likening her act to a robbery becomes the colorful, fascinating strategy for a poem about observation, memory, and keen awareness—all qualities necessary for converting slices of life into pieces of poetry.

First Movement: A Startling Confession

I robbed the Woods –
The trusting Woods.

The speaker begins with a startling confession that she has made off with property not belonging to her; she has become a felonious thief. Of course, this clever speaker is not confessing to a literal crime—but instead to a metaphorical robbery.

The speaker confesses to robbing "the Woods," which sets ablaze abundant wonderment in her listener, who would naturally respond, "What? How can you rob the woods?" To which the speaker delays an answer by confirming how easy it was to commit her burglary because the woods is "trusting."

Thus, the first movement sets up a riddle that leaves her listening audience wondering exactly what she took out of the woods and why she would consider it robbery. And one might wonder if the woods that is so trusting of her will exert some critical response for the metaphorical crime.

Second Movement: Pleasing Her Fantasy

The unsuspecting Trees
Brought out their Burs and mosses
My fantasy to please.

The speaker begins her foray into explaining the nature of her robbery by asserting that the trees, who have no idea what the speaker was up to, had put on display the jewels that they are wont to feature, that is, their "Burs and mosses."

Like a jeweler bringing out his case of diamonds and pearls, those trees are demonstrating to the speaker that they possess these natural wonders.

The trees are presenting to the speaker their wares for her pleasure, again just as a jeweler might present his baubles to his customers who are shopping for gemstones with which to decorate their smart outfits of clothing.

Interestingly, the speaker divulges that it was her "fantasy," which the trees wish to please; thus, she has strongly set forth the notion that her little fantasy about robbery is just the level of trees deliberately revealing their moss and burs.

She has by now set her listening audience on a straight path to a metaphorical jaunt into her supple mental processes which will lead unerringly to a little colorful drama.

Third Movement: Absconding with Treasures

I scanned their trinkets curious – I grasped – I bore away –

After the unwitting trees had brought out their wares—"trinkets"—the speaker looks them over; she becomes "curious" to know more about those trinkets; thus, she inspects them out of her curiosity.

But then suddenly, it happens! She scoops up the "trinkets" and flees, just like a burglar in the night, whose presence she had earlier implied through her confession to robbery.

The speaker, in sum, has spied the marvelous natural offerings the trusting woodland’s unsuspecting trees have put before her sight, and she has then made off with them.

And the speaker claims that this marvelous display was for her benefit, to please her fantasy. So she takes what is presented her and absconds with the loot.

She seems to defending her felonious act by insisting that those baubles were made available to please her. Likely it would have been rude merely to glance and move on without some sterner gesture.

Fourth Movement: The Metaphor of Theft

What will the solemn Hemlock –
What will the Oak tree say?

After her confession to robbing the woods and the trees, the speaker wonders what the "solemn Hemlock" will think of what she has done. And she couples her question with wondering what the "Oak tree" will think, that is, "say."

The speaker’s little confessional drama, in reality, has metaphorically revealed that upon visiting the woods, she was so impressed by the beauty, majesty, and the Divine Presence of the woodland beings that she figuratively stole those qualities, taking them with her in her fertile mind through keen observation and mental note-taking.

While it may be possible that she actually took a physical sample of the burs and moss, it remains unlikely. If the speaker had wished to convey such a taking, she would have referred to natural growths that are more likely to be taken a keepsakes, such a rocks or flowers.

The speaker makes it clear that her robbery remains purely metaphorical in nature: she has taken the natural items mentally and knowing the poet that fashioned this speaker, the reader can be sure that she mentally absconded with those "trinkets," and they will appear in the garden of her verse.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 20, 2021:

Even using first person, writers (poets) create characters: think of a playwright, who will have a character using first person. Of course, Dickinson is always "speaking for herself"—even when she created the line, "I used to – when a Boy"; "Boy" is only a near-rime with "by," so her reason for creating a male character to speak that poem is more complex than the mere achievement of rime.

Dickinson was not a "botanist"; she had a keen interest in botany, science in general, history, religion, and all literary studies, but she held no advanced degrees in any of those fields, nor did she ever pursue a career in any of them.

Good, useful essays may often begin through "wild imagination" that delves into any subject. And the best way to explore and address any issue is to study it, research it, make connections, and if so inclined, write about it as a way to cement your own ideas into solid positions.

Thank you, Farah, for your continued interest and fascinating comments! Blessings to you, too!

Farah N Huq from Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 19, 2021:

Thank you for the clarification regarding the difference between the poet and the speaker. Yes, I agree, they do not need to be the same person. However, she wrote this in the first person which is what compelled me to think she was speaking for herself, a secret confession, that she could not have written in prose. Had she written this in text, this theme wouldn’t would not have worked.

The second reason why I felt that she was speaking for herself is that she was a botanist if I am not wrong. So technically she robbed woods almost every other day. What could be the reason for her to feel worried about what the hemlock and oak tree would think of her suddenly? I felt that since nature was close to her heart and something that made her comfortable, she might have used it to pen down events in her life she wasn’t comfortable with even in her writing. And thus the confession to herself in the very first line!

The reference to the male speaker, a boy growing up into a man, in the poem “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House” could very well be introduced for rhyming with “by”. That’s the only line where there is an indication of the gender of the speaker. Even in this poem, it felt like she was narrating her own experience in the guise of that little boy.

This could just be my wild imagination into Emily’s life and what went behind her writing.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my curious mind. Stay blessed always!

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 19, 2021:

Thank you, Farah, for your response.

You pose a set of interesting questions. It might make a useful essay if you set about to answer them with supporting lines and interpretations from the poem. That’s essentially how I work up an essay for a commentary: when a thought presents itself, see if it can be substantiated from the text.

One must always be careful not to read into the text. Sometimes that happens if one relies too heavily on biography. We must remember that the poet and the speaker are not always identical: Dickinson herself even created a male character to speak her poem, "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House."

Farah N Huq from Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 19, 2021:

Enjoyed the explanation very much, dear Ms Maya! I also went through a few other explanations and all seem to agree that this was about nature. However, had I not read the explanations and had I not known that this is a well-known work of a famous poetess, I would’ve thought the writer was speaking about the secrets in her life in the guise of nature. Could it be a possibility that Emily was doing so?

The trusting forest being a trusting friend who flaunted her belongings and relationships? and that she felt tempted by those...which made her act in a manner that led her to feel guilty and anxious for breaching that trust? Could the poisonous hemlock be the judgmental society or a family member she was referring to? Could it be that she used nature as a theme to tell her story?

Just a thought!

Thank you for sharing!