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Emily Dickinson's "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.

Amherst College -  age 17

Amherst College - age 17

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

Emily Dickinson’s poem, "When Roses cease to bloom, Sir," makes a startling command of God. The Dickinsonian speaker always holds in great reverence the Creator (God) of the universe and all 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.

The structure of the octave features 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 mix. 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 that "when" clause.

The speaker has thus inserted herself into the narrative in an unobtrusive way. 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 strong command to the Belovèd Creator—one that both shocks and yet remains perfectly understandable even to the most spiritually averse.

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!

The Poem Rendered in Song

Commentary

Emily Dickinson wrote many poems that function not only as poems but as prayers. This poem/prayer demonstrates the poet’s depth of knowledge in science as well as her insight into the spiritual significance that such knowledge suggests for the human mind and heart on its path of evolutionary upward progression.

First Movement: Emphasis on Beauty

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

The speaker begins the "when" application of her supplication by addressing God. 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. She also demonstrates that she is including both domesticated plants—roses, and those that continue to grow wild—violets. The Blessèd Lord 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 healthful thinking.

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 on the physical plane 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 language feature demonstrates this speaker’s understanding regarding the existence of the hierarchy to which earthly creatures are subjected. This hierarchy is not based on favoritism—only the fact of existence that all creatures pass through 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 left behind the plant and animal kingdom and is focusing on the simple human feature of a "hand." 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 making 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 command 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 commands the Belovèd "Sir" (God) to "take my 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 commanding the Divine Gardener to accept her metaphysical flowers. Such a command seems infinitely cheeky of a mere child of the Master 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.

Transforming Amber into Auburn

Emily Dickinson’s hair was auburn, and there are some indications that when she was young, it was quite red. Does that physical feature account for the poet’s employing the term "auburn" to allude to "amber" in the line, "Will idle lie – in Auburn"? Quite likely.

It is an important fact that Emily Dickinson had read widely in areas such as history and science; thus, she no doubt was aware of the paleontological discovery of insects in amber and had likely read accounts similar to the following:

We have had a long relationship with amber, the beautiful petrified tree resin. Amber is mostly orange, reddish or gold in color while sometimes there might even be red or the rare green and blue amber. We use it mostly for jewelry but amber also became important to paleontologists in understanding the ancient world. Once a viscous liquid, it becomes solid upon fossilization, often trapping whatever creatures or other small organisms that originally get stuck in the substance. . . . One thing amber does not preserve, however, is DNA. –Vasika Udurawane’s "Trapped in Time"

Being the consummate poet that she was, Emily Dickinson greatly transformed her allusion from science-speak to poetic parlance of insects trapped in amber, making her depiction colorfully humanized. Such intuitive knowledge is remarkable. She is writing nearly a hundred years before the discovery of DNA.

Thus, she could not have contemplated the exact science of a human body trapped in amber. But her metaphoric and symbolic substitution of "auburn" for "amber" has again demonstrated the vastness of her worldly knowledge and the spiritual insight that such knowledge can herald in the mind and hands of a master poet.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 17, 2020:

Thank you so much for your response, Nancy! Because I agree with your assessment about the "frenetic" nature of the song, I have changed the video to feature a very different, more sedate, more appropriate song. For more information about the tune, please see

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI7dN851EvY

I wanted simply a reading of the poem, but all that is available are versions that have been rendered in song. I hope eventually to place my own readings on YouTube, but for now I am relying on what is already there. Not many of Dickinson's poems have been read and placed on YouTube, which always strikes me as odd.

Again, thanks for the comment. It is comments like your that are truly welcome and helpful for us writers; they actually help us to improve our compositions. Blessings!

Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on August 17, 2020:

I love this poem and most everything that Emily Dickenson wrote, but the frenetic accompaniment which creates a song out of this poem is nothing but distracting to me. Who is the musician who wrote it? I am a musician, singer, and writer, so am very interested. And, thanks for taking on this project and posting the results.