2008 Northeast Modern Language Association Panels
10-13 April 2008
Buffalo, New York

Kristen Gallagher
City University of New York


"Emily Dickenson, the Birds and the Bees"


Do not cite without permission of the author.

The Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson reports “birds” and “bees” are listed far more often than any other non-human animal in her poetry. The “purpose” of the world from the perspective of a bee might make the flower central, beginning and end. Or, perhaps the bee would be central and the flower solely for the purpose of continuing bee-world: “To be a Flower, is profound / Responsibility—” (F 1058). The following (F 1388) is a poem I rarely see addressed in the criticism, but whose theme and formal use of variant word-choices placed at the end of the poem demonstrates Dickinson’s nature poetics:

Those Cattle smaller than a Bee
That herd upon the Eye ¾
Whose tillage is the passing Crumb ¾
Those Cattle are the Fly ¾
Of Barns for Winter ¾ Blameless ¾
Extemporaneous stalls
They found to our objection ¾
On Eligible Walls ¾
Reserving the presumption
To suddenly descend
And gallop on the Furniture ¾
Or odiouser offend ¾
Of their peculiar calling
Unqualified to judge
To Nature we remand them
To justify or scourge ¾

     3 tillage]pasture    3 passing]wandering     5 blameless]ignorant 
     7 objection]abhorrence    12 Or]the O over another letter   
     12 odiouser]otherwise ∙ fataller –

Dickinson’s poem calls the reader to consider interrelationship and interdependence in both nature (birds & bees) and language (variant word-choices). In this poem she confronts the issue so simply, citing the common fly and admitting that in observing we are “Of their peculiar calling / Unqualified to judge.” She turns this judgment over “to Nature” which either needs them or does not. This resonates more with emerging scientific findings that life evolves randomly by attraction and repulsion and with no discernible purpose except maybe just the creation of more life. Like a swarm of flies, the variant words here buzz around each other, lead each other in a roundabout play, making meaning hovering.

Dickinson’s reading and writing life are just such an expression—and her variants work the same way. Dickinson operates with life’s superfluity, seeming to take some pleasure in noting life whose survival seems to emerge by chance, things which won’t last long but seem to burst forth, life that might not appear necessary for the continuation of life, but watched closely becomes difficult to judge. Another way to say this might be that meaning is at least in part constructed from observation, but that life is so productive and excessive that any deduction would be not only provisional but reductive.

If Dickinson attempts writing adequate to life, composed of fragile and delicate materials in a dynamic, unpredictable scatter, then the discourse on life and chance which exploded on the scene with Darwin’s Origin of Species in November 1859 has to be considered in looking at the radical nature of her work. Darwin’s concept of variation and modification offered the nineteenth century a scientific account of the new, and of change based in material: material changes and is changed by other material, and a “proliferation of variation is necessary” for life to have enough variant possibilities to increase it likelihood of surviving (Origin 67). Species, in this construction, emerges by degrees of difference, but actually Darwin’s model renders nothing identical nor absolutely different. Species doesn’t have such clear boundaries; it is creative, always moving, always changing. Survival depends on capacity to change, and so to some degree, to give up the idea of a discrete identity. This system of Darwin’s renders existence indeterminate. Likewise, Dickinson’s process, in its close approximation to Darwinian variation, renders many of her manuscripts indeterminate. As Logan Esdale says in a recent article in The Emily Dickinson Journal, “editors and scholars […] feel forced to make choices that Dickinson herself refused to make.” But with each choice, each edition, each interpretation, new life breathes again through those manuscripts, yet another form is created by Emily Dickinson’s words.