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Emily Dickinson's "She slept beneath a tree" and "It's all I have to bring today"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson

Introduction and Text of "She slept beneath a tree" and "It's all I have to bring today"

The first installment of this Dickinson mini-series, "She slept beneath a tree," offers up one of those famous Dickinson riddles. She only describes her subject but never names it, leaving that up to her readers to guess.

The second installment, "It's all I have to bring today," sounds almost as if she is offering a continuation of the first offering. One can imagine that the "it" in the first line refers to the subject of the "She slept beneath a tree."

It offers an interesting contrast to read the second in tandem with the first as opposed to reading it as standing alone.

She slept beneath a tree

She slept beneath a tree —
Remembered but by me.
I touched her Cradle mute —
She recognized the foot —
Put on her carmine suit
And see!

It's all I have to bring today

It's all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —
Be sure you count — should I forget
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

Song lyric: "It's all I have to bring today"

Commentary on "She slept beneath a tree"

This riddle poem remains mysteriously vague, as the speaker plays with the reader's sensibilities. While the subject of the riddle might be interesting, more important is the effect that child of nature has on the speaker.

First Movement: A Riddle

She slept beneath a tree —
Remembered but by me.
I touched her Cradle mute —

The speaker reports that the subject of her riddle had been sleeping at the foot of tree. No one had remembered or taken note of the subject except for the speaker, who visits the subject and "touched her Cradle." The cradle was mute or perhaps it was the speaker who remained mute. By allowing the ambiguity, the speaker amplifies the impact of the riddle.

Second Movement: Remarkable Claim

She recognized the foot —
Put on her carmine suit
And see!

The speaker then makes a remarkable claim, reporting that her subject was aware of the speaker's identity because of the sound of her football. The speaker is now playing with her readers, telling them that she, in fact, is the one who was able to remember and spot the subject.

Even more remarkable and cagey of the speaker, is that after the subject of her discourse recognizes the speaker, the subject dresses herself out in a "carmine suit." The dark red coloring of the subject might offer a clue to her identity, but it might also obfuscate that identify.

The speaker then excitedly cries, "And see!" She is pointing to the subject, telling her companion, who may be real or imagined, to observe the fascinating, unusual color of the subject. The speaker makes little known about the subject itself; her description seems to cover more than uncover, yet it reveals much about the speaker, who has demonstrated her joy, even glee, at the opportunity to discover and visit this nature's child who sleeps beneath a tree and then turns red at the mere presence of the speaker's aura.

So who is child of nature sleeping beneath and tree? Your guess is as good as mine!

Commentary on "It's all I have to bring today"

The poem begins in humble recognition of a humble offering but then expands to include all the speaker's circumference.

First Movement: A Blooming Statement

It's all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —

The speaker begins small with a statement that sounds quite limiting. She apparently is porting something and says that's all she has brought today. But she seems immediately to contradict that limiting statement by opening up to a whole wide world of other things she is bringing.

In addition to the object she has brought, she is also bringing "her heart," "all the fields," as well as "all the meadows." Her statement seems to fan out like one of those Japanese folding fans that folds up and then spreads out for use in moving the air about one's face.

Second Movement: Reckoning God

Be sure you count — should I forget
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

To her audience, the speaker then commands they also include God, that is, "some one the sum could tell." Only God is able to reckon all the creation that the speaker has chosen to allude to in her expanding report.

The speaker then reiterates that she is bringing "this" along with her heart and then expands further by including "all the Bees" that live in the clover. She has gone from bringing only a seeming token to bringing all that her eyes can detect or all that he mind can discern. She is simply offering all that she is, sees, and knows to the Blessed Creator, Who has fashioned all of this magnificent nature that she adores with her heart and soul.

Emily Dickinson

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.

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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