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Emily Dickinson's Two Rose Poems: "Nobody knows this little Rose" and "When Roses cease to bloom, Sir"

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 Commemorative Stamp

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Introduction and Text of "Nobody knows this little Rose"

The speaker in Emily Dickinson’s "Nobody knows this little Rose" is lamenting the fact that this "little Rose" will die without having garnered much attention during its earthly sojourn. Except for a bee, a butterfly, a bird and a gentle wind, along with the speaker, likely few if any will even notice that such a one existed.

In noting that it is easy for this little flower to die, the speaker is mourning that death. Such beauty should not be lost so easily but should garner attention, perhaps have its status elevated to a higher plane than the mere physical presence so easily lost.

Nobody knows this little Rose

Nobody knows this little Rose–
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it–
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey–
On its breast to lie–
Only a Bird will wonder–
Only a Breeze will sigh–
Ah Little Rose–how easy
For such as thee to die!

Emily Dickinson at 17

Emily Dickinson at 17

Commentary

The speaker is musing about the death of a small rose. She imagines its family mourning the rose’s absence. The speaker, while musing to herself, incidentally addresses God in the opening movement and then the rose itself in the final movement.

First Movement: Lamentation for the Unknown

Nobody knows this little Rose–
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.

The speaker begins her lament by claiming that no one is acquainted with her subject, a simple, small rose. She has plucked this little rose, which apparently was growing in the wild. The speaker speculates that this little rose might be "a pilgrim" for it was growing away from other flower beds. She then rather casually asks someone, likely God, or Mother Nature about her own act.

Although formed as a question, the speaker actually reveals the fact that she did pluck the little flower and then offered it up to "thee." It remains a strange confession, but it is likely that the act of plucking the rose has set her off to realizing that it will now die. But instead of just enjoying its beauty, she continues to speculate about the life of the little flower.

Second Movement: Only Missing

Only a Bee will miss it–
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey–
On its breast to lie–

In her speculation, the speaker takes into account who might have been its visitors. She exaggerates that a solitary bee "will miss" the rose because of the speaker’s act. But after saying "only" a bee will note that the little rose is missing, she remembers that likely a "butterfly" will also note its absence. The butterfly will have traveled perhaps miles to rest upon the little rose’s "breast." And the butterfly, the speaker speculates, will have been hurrying to finish its "journey" that led it to the rose’s abode. Now after it makes that hastened trip, it will be astonished, or perhaps frustrated, that the little flower has gone missing.

Third Movement: The Ease of Dying

Only a Bird will wonder–
Only a Breeze will sigh–
Ah Little Rose–how easy
For such as thee to die!

The speaker continues to catalogue those creatures who will be missing the little rose. She notes that in addition to the bee and the butterfly, some bird is going to wonder what happened to the flower. The last entity to ponder the absence of the little rose is the "Breeze," which will "sigh" as it wafts over the location that once held the sweet fragrance of the rose.

After the speaker’s intense musing to herself and to the Blessèd Creator of nature, she then addresses the rose itself, but all she can do is offer a simple, humble remark about how "easy" it is for a creature such as the "Little Rose" "to die!" Her excited utterance, however, belies the simplicity of the words. Her heart is filled with the sadness and sorrow that accompany the missing of loved ones.

The speaker has created and assembled a family for the little rose: a bee, a butterfly, a bird, and a breeze. All of these creatures of nature have interacted with the rose, and now the speaker is musing on how they will be affected by the flower’s absence. They will all miss her, and the speaker knows how missing a loved one feels. The ease with which a little unknown creature dies does not assuage the pain its absence will cause.

Introduction and Text of "When Roses cease to bloom, Sir"

Emily Dickinson’s poem, "When Roses cease to bloom, Sir," features prominently a surprising demand of the Divine Belovèd Creator. The Dickinsonian speaker always holds in great reverence and regard the Creator of the cosmic universe and all of earthly nature. She dramatizes in poetic form her physical world observations to reveal her awareness of the Divine Creator’s existence both within the natural world and outside of that natural world, extending into the realm of spirit.

The octave is structured by a "when-then" time sequence: when one thing happens, then the other may be expected to happen or may be desired to happen. In this poem, the structure adds a complex sub-feature to the equation. Not only is the speaker offering a "when" structure that encompasses three natural phenomena of plant and animal kingdom activity, but she is also adding a third element from the human realm to the "when" clause.

The speaker has thus inserted herself into the narrative in an unobtrusive way through the employment of the synecdochic "hand." After setting up the "when" application, she engages her own action and then offers the second half of the "when-then" function. That "then" application, however, delivers a subtle demand of the Belovèd Creator—one that may at first appear somewhat shocking but yet remains comprehensible and infinitely appropriate.

When Roses cease to bloom, Sir

When Roses cease to bloom, Sir,
And Violets are done –
When Bumblebees in solemn flight
Have passed beyond the Sun –
The hand that paused to gather
Upon this Summer's day
Will idle lie – in Auburn –
Then take my flowers – pray!

"When Roses cease to bloom, Sir" rendered in song

Commentary

Emily Dickinson’s "When Roses cease to bloom, Sir" demonstrates the poet’s depth of knowledge of the science of the evolutionary progress, as well as her insight into the spiritual significance that such knowledge suggests for the human mind and heart on its path through evolutionary advancement.

First Movement: Emphasis on Beauty

When Roses cease to bloom, Sir,
And Violets are done –

The speaker begins the "when" function by addressing the Divine Ineffable Reality. She suggests that she will be asking for some favor after flowers have come and gone. She allows "Roses" and "Violets" to represent all natural vegetation, which would include all plants growing in the fields, along the streets, and in her own vegetable garden. By allowing only two lovely flowers to represent all of the plant kingdom, the speaker is demonstrating her emphasis on her love of beauty.

The speaker then demonstrates that she is including both domesticated plants—roses, and those that continue to grow wild—violets. The Blessèd Author of creation as well as the speaker’s listeners/readers are invited to observe that the speaker keeps her mind firmly on her goal, her own creation of beauty and engagement in health and wholesomeness.

Second Movement: Evolution from Plant to Animal

When Bumblebees in solemn flight
Have passed beyond the Sun –

The speaker then turns to the animal kingdom, allowing the simple bumblebee to represent that kingdom. The "Bumblebees" have engaged in "solemn flight" and like the roses and violets are now passing out of existence. Unlike the rose that "cease[s] to bloom" and the violet whose passing out of existence is qualified as merely "done," the bee, an evolutionarily higher-stationed member of the animal kingdom, "pass[es] beyond the Sun."

The speaker makes the distinction between the two kingdoms in this marvelously ingenious way–how they cease their summer sojourn. As flowers simply pass away by simple cessation, the bees have engaged in the physical act of moving, which is denied plants rooted to the earth; thus, the speaker creates the bees’ metaphorical passing beyond light. Even though the souls of all those creatures remain distinct entities in the mind of their Creator, they express in very different ways according to their current incarnation on earth, representative of their individual and collective karma.

It is only natural that the higher evolved bee would demonstrate an ability beyond that of the lower plant world. And the speaker’s ability to place this distinction in such a minimalist setting demonstrates this speaker’s understanding regarding the existence of the hierarchy to which earthly creatures remain attached until their final liberation. All created beings must pass through this hierarchical system on their way from lowest to highest form on the evolutionary scale.

Third Movement: The Human in Creation

The hand that paused to gather
Upon this Summer's day

The speaker has now quit her focus on the plant and animal kingdoms and is focusing on the simple human feature of a "hand," a synecdochic representative of the human physical encasement. That hand pauses. Instead of moving to pluck and collect those flowers before they are gone, this hand leaves them in place. Instead of shooing away the bees, the speaker simply takes the measure of their movement, while fashioning the observation that distinguishes the flowers from the bees.

All summer long, the speaker has observed the bees extracting nectar from the flowers. The relationship between the flowers and the nectar-gathering bees has impressed upon the mind of the speaker the symbiotic relationship that exists in nature and that extends to the human being as an integral part of that natural scenario.

But the speaker now holds her request of the Divine Creator until she has described her own situation, her own participation in the drama that she has created in the garden of her mind, heart, and soul. Her poetic garden contains multitudes, and the ability to grow metaphorical, metaphysical flowers, bees, human hands remains her greatest challenge and strongest ability.

Fourth Movement: The Metaphysical Garden of Verse

Will idle lie – in Auburn –
Then take my flowers – pray!

That human hand that pauses does so to continue its construction of her own metaphysical, poetic creation—that original garden into which she had early on invited her brother to visit. After that hand becomes "idle," it will cease creating those metaphysical flowers and those metaphysical bees. Therefore, the speaker then demands of the Belovèd "Sir" that He "take [her] flowers"—adding for emphasis, "pray!" After the speaker herself has ceased blooming and flying beyond the sun and pausing from the labor of metaphorical, metaphysical garden creation, her physical form will exist like a bug in amber and become unresponsive and "lie – in Auburn."

Thus, the clever speaker is requesting through a strong demand that the Divine Gardener accept her metaphysical flowers. Such a demand may seem infinitely cheeky of a mere created child of the Master Creator of the Cosmos, but the speaker has demonstrated repeatedly that she remains steadfast in her devotion and confident in her ability to create flowers—offerings—that are acceptable to a most discriminating Divine Creator.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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