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Emily Dickinson's "It did not surprise me"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant, authentic image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant, authentic image of the poet.

Introduction and Text of "It did not surprise me"

Similar to her riddle-poem, "I have a Bird in spring," in this poem, Dickinson is also featuring the metaphorical bird as her mystical muse, as she ponders the possibility of that little birdling flying away from her, leaving her heartbroken.

However, unlike the riddle aspect in "I have a Bird in spring," she allows her speaker to report first as if she is merely describing an actual bird. She then shifts to a questioning format focusing on the mere thought that her muse might fly off as a bird would do.

The speaker must leave the issue unanswered because she will retain that question as long as she continues to create. After all, creative artists can never know if or when their inspiration might vanish and never return.

It did not surprise me

It did not surprise me –
So I said – or thought –
She will stir her pinions
And the nest forgot,

Traverse broader forests –
Build in gayer boughs,
Breathe in Ear more modern
God's old fashioned vows –

This was but a Birdling –
What and if it be
One within my bosom
Had departed me?

This was but a story –
What and if indeed
There were just such coffin
In the heart instead?

Reading of "It did not surprise me"

Commentary

The speaker metaphorically likens her muse—which she knows is bound to her mystical insight—to a bird, as she ruminates on the possibility of losing the blessing provided by that spiritual entity.

First Stanza: An Awakened Thought

It did not surprise me –
So I said – or thought –
She will stir her pinions
And the nest forgot,

The speaker begins her report by confessing her lack of "surprise" at some event, which turns out to be that of a bird stirring and leaving its nest. She inserts between her opening statement and the bird’s first movement that upon realizing her lack of surprise, she spoke out but then rephrased her claim to the fact that she merely thought about the following events.

The final two lines of the stanza hold the main possibility of an activity as she states that this bird will begin fluttering its wings for flight and then leave its nest. The bird forsaking its nest will then not remember that it had ever lived there; such is the nature of natural creatures, as well as certain metaphorical birds that are likened to the muse. If this muse leaves permanently, it will likely not remember that it once inspired such and such a soul.

Interestingly, Dickinson employed the past tense "forgot" but clearly the essential meaning is "forget." She likely used the past tense because it offers a closer rime with "thought." On the other hand, the meaning may also demand that "forgot" be read as the shortened form of the past participle, as in the nest will be forgotten. Through her employment of minimalism and ellipsis, the poet leaves out "nest will be," demanding that that phrase be understood.

(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.")

Second Stanza: Ranging to New Lands

Traverse broader forests –
Build in gayer boughs,
Breathe in Ear more modern
God's old fashioned vows –

After stirring its pinions and flying from its nest, this bird will roam in new territories or "broader forests." It will build its new nest in a place deemed happier for its circumstances, that is, "gayer boughs." The bird will listen to new sounds, accompanied by the blessings of its Creator, Who has promised to guide and guard all of His creatures.

At this point, the bird has taken on few metaphorical qualities. The report could be that of merely dramatizing what any young bird might do, after awakening to the delicious reality of being able to fly and range wide from its original location.

Third Stanza: Bird in the Bosom

This was but a Birdling –
What and if it be
One within my bosom
Had departed me?

The speaker now confesses that the little flying creature she has been describing was, in fact, a simple little bird, or "Birdling." But then she shifts her focus to the "One" that resides in her heart, asking the fundamental question, "what if my little bird-muse leaves me?"

In her poem, "I have a Bird in spring," Dickinson has also described her mystical muse as a bird. That poem behaves as one of her many riddle-poems, as she seems to be describing some impossible entity which can fly from her but then return bringing her gifts from beyond the sea.

That particular metaphoric bird has the power to calm her in times of stress. Like that poem, which is one of her most profound, this one, "It did not surprise me," remains on the same consistent plane of mystical awareness. Clearly, the bird as a metaphorical vehicle for the soul (muse, mystically creative spirit) remains quite appropriate.

Fourth Stanza: A Pregnant Inquiry

This was but a story –
What and if indeed
There were just such coffin
In the heart instead?

The speaker makes another admission, that thus far she has been merely speculating about her bird/muse flying off from its nest in her heart/mind/soul. And then she poses another inquiry, repeating the quaint phrase "[w]hat and if" preceding her question.

This pregnant question employs the term "coffin" indicating the dire and deadly situation that would exist in her mind/heart/soul, if her bird/muse did, in fact, fly away to explore vaster forests and build on more jovial boughs. She suggests in her musing that her heart would be that "coffin" if such an event materialized.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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