Emily Dickinson,
Emily Dickinson,

My familiarity with Dickinson’s work was, at best, limited.  I’d always had the impression that she was, in my own words, a tortured recluse. She was reclusive to be sure; but tortured–I’m beginning to wonder, and this poem is a prime example of the reason why.

 

 

 

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

(F11, The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Copyright 1998.)

This poem was originally published in the Springfield Daily Republican in August of 1858 with the heading “To Mrs – with a rose”, and the recipient was Susan Dickinson (Emily Dickinson Archive). There are several things in it which caught my attention.

Upon first reading, my takeaway was that this poem was a premature lamentation for a lost loved one–not an uncommon theme in what I’ve read thus far. Dickinson is mourning the day when her beloved sister-in-law (considering the recipient) is gone, a day which has not come. Dickinson is pained by how quickly and “eas[ily]” death comes. The poem seemed fairly straight forward–you will die, the people who love you will miss you, but not that many people will notice. Surely something to make you feel good when you receive it on a sunny Summer day. But, as with most poetry, and this is certainly true of Dickinson, there is more to it than that.

Nobody knows this little Rose –
It might a pilgrim be

The rose is arguably the most beautiful and fragrant of all flowers. It is certainly, in Western culture, the most coveted. The gift of roses is synonymous with love, friendship, compassion, sympathy–it encompasses all emotions and relationships. Their smell is powerful and soothing–only a few blooms can fill an entire room. For those of us who grew up in homes where roses were grown and tended, the fragrance is fraught with memories. But, roses are also incredibly delicate, especially after they are picked. They wilt and die quickly. Their petals brown and fall away at the slightest touch. Their beauty is magnificent, but fleeting. They are pilgrims.

The Pilgrim Climbing Rose
The Pilgrim Climbing Rose

A pilgrim. A wanderer or traveler. A person on a lengthy journey, most of the time not knowing where she will be taken. The imagery here of a wandering “Rose”–a graceful, beautiful young woman who, no matter where she is, never seems to be in the right place. She never seems to be in a place where her beauty and grace is appreciated except for her fellow sojourners. Emily and Susan’s relationship seems to be that of kindred spirits. Emily would understand the pilgrim Rose and would likewise be understood.

 

Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.

The title from the publication, “To Mrs -, sent with a rose” suggests that the poem was actually delivered with a rose, most likely from Emily’s garden, that she had picked herself. The flower a reminder to her dear friend, her sister, that she is loved and cared for and understood. But, there is deeper meaning even than that. In writing “Did I not take it from the ways” implies that she is something of a rescuer. She rescued this one rose from the obscurity it knew in an entire garden of beauty, and she will rescue Susan from the obscurity of married life, making her a person of unmatched importance in Emily’s life. She will lift Susan up so that her beauty can truly be seen.

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 –

Bees, butterflies, birds, and breezes–all pilgrims. Always moving from place to place stopping just long enough to rest or eat. It is among theses fellow wanderers that the Rose will be missed. Although there is some comfort here in knowing that one will be missed after death, there is also a hint of bittersweet pathos. After all, bees, butterflies, birds, and even the breeze will all move along. They will find another rose upon which to light. There will be other roses from which the wind can transmit olfactory beauty. This rose might be missed, but there is always another rose.

Ah Little Rose – how easy
For such as thee to die!

These lines are again a repetition of the idea that death comes quickly (in this case I don’t take the word “easy” literally) for such a tender flower. But, knowing now what I know about Dickinson’s experiences in life, I am also hesitant to take the verb “to die” quite as literally as I would have before. Dickinson’s attitude toward death and dying seems to me to be a bit more broad than that of most people. To her, death may indeed be just another part of the journey that the pilgrim Rose is on. Death, rather than a tragic end, is a release from a life far more confining and restrictive than any “pilgrim” could endure for long.

Like Dickinson herself, this poem has many facets of meaning. Its message and purpose is not singular. It is an affirmation of sisterhood and friendship. It is a promise of protection and praise. It is an acknowledgment that life is temporary. It is a celebration of the fact that even when temporal life ends, life continues on.

I selected this poem because I experienced a personal connection to it. After my parents divorced when I was young, my mother, sister, and I lived with my great grandmother and great-great aunt in their small bungalow-style home. They kept a rose garden in an area between the living room and side porch of the house. In the summertime, when the rose bushes were in full bloom and the wind was out of the south, the whole house was filled with the most amazing smell. Even now, some 30 years after the last time I lived in that house, when I smell roses I am immediately transported back to my childhood. The memories of those days ride on and are immersed in that sweet fragrance. My great grandmother was a single mother of three children decades before single motherhood was common or accepted. My great-great aunt was widowed childless at only 30 years old. Like the pilgrim Rose in this poem, neither of them were widely known in this life, but both of them were an influence that left them sorely missed at their death. So, this poem spoke to me in a very real and tangible way.

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2 thoughts on “The Pilgrim Rose: Thoughts on an Emily Dickinson Poem

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