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“The Last Rose of Summer”: How Emily Dickinson Read and Rewrote the Favorite Song of the Nineteenth Century by Gabrielle Dean

A Sheet of Music

In January of 1846, when she had just turned fifteen, Emily Dickinson wrote to her dear friend Abiah Root with updates about her recent studies, local news, inquiries about common friends, and a detailed accounting of the contents of her Christmas stocking.

…Old Santa Claus was very polite to me the last Christmas. I hung up my stocking on the bedpost as usual. I had a perfume bag and a bottle of otto of rose to go with it, a sheet of music, a china mug with Forget me not upon it, from S.S.,—who, by the way, is as handsome, entertaining, and as fine a piano player as in former times,—a toilet cushion, a watch case, a fortune-teller, and an amaranthine stock of pin-cushions and needlebooks, which in ingenuity and art would rival the works of Scripture Dorcas. I found abundance of candy in my stocking, which I do not think has had the anticipated effect upon my disposition, in case it was to sweeten it, also two hearts at the bottom of all, which I thought looked rather ominous; but I will not enter into any more details, for they take up more room than I can spare. (my emphasis)[1]

With this reference to the “sheet of music” on her list of holiday booty, we get a glimpse of the way that music entered Dickinson’s life: as an object. It is striking that Dickinson does not refer to her new sheet of music by its title or even by its musical genre—a waltz, an air, a variation. Although she also mentions in her letter a fine piano player acquaintance, and in an earlier part of the letter discusses her music lessons and practice—in short, although music as music is on her mind—when it comes to “a sheet of music,” Dickinson takes her cue from its status as a thing.

We also get a glimpse of the kind of thing it was. As printed ephemera, it was a manufactured commodity, like a china mug or a fortune-telling game, in contrast to something made by hand for home use, like a needlebook or a pin cushion. A commodity needs a categorical name to make it identifiable in the marketplace, which Dickinson employs; a “sheet of music” is the singular form of the plural “sheet music.” In 1846, a sheet of music was not an opulent gift, as we can see from the company it keeps here, but neither was it an insignificant expense. (Note that Dickinson refrains from “more details” because her “room” in the letter, her sheet of paper, is scarce.) Nevertheless, Dickinson eventually owned quite a bit of it—enough so that, when her father had the collection bound into a volume in about 1852, the resulting codex contained 106 titles, as listed in its hand-written index (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Index, calligrapher unknown. [Music: a bound volume of miscellaneous sheet music, without title page / with Emily Dickinson's name written on flyleaf]. Dickinson family library, EDR 469. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

This substantial volume reveals that Dickinson was an avid music collector in her teens and early twenties, as well as an accomplished home pianist. It thus prompts us to consider more carefully not just the ways that music as sound might have been important to her as a reader and writer of poetry, but also music as matter—a thing that took its place among other things in the Dickinson household. Given that her piano practice seems to have waned as her poetic practice waxed, what does the emergence of her poetic voice owe to her musical education? What did sheet music potentially contribute to her sense of meter, her ear for musical language, her perception of lineation, her understanding of the folded sheet of paper as a gathering with a relationship to the codex? What might it have suggested to her about print culture, domestic space, creativity, and gender? What did sheet music teach her, as a pianist who became a poet, about the dialogue between a creator and a reading “recreator”?

Dickinson’s sheet music volume is not just the most tangible extant evidence of her musical talent and education, but the culminating representation of a childhood full of music. Her propensity for the piano emerged when she was very young, while visiting her aunt Lavinia Norcross in the early 1830s, and her parents sought out opportunities for formal musical instruction: lessons with Ann Eliza Houghton beginning in about 1839, some engagement with music during her years at Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847, Sunday evening singing school starting in 1844, piano lessons with “Aunt Selby” beginning in 1845, choir and piano practice at Mount Holyoke in 1847, and occasional concerts.[2] Most important was the family’s purchase in 1845 of a square piano (possibly made by Worcester manufacturers Marsh & Liscom, similar to the one in fig. 2) primarily intended for Emily, which Dickinson mentioned with pride and joy several times in letters to Abiah Root that summer, allowing her to play at home, in the parlor at 31 Pleasant Street (fig. 3).[3]

Figure 2. Marsh and Liscom square piano, 1830s. Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester MA.

Figure 3. 31 Pleasant Street (later North Pleasant Street) in Amherst MA, circa 1880s, the home of the Edward Dickinson family from 1840 to 1855. Jones Library Special Collections, Amherst MA.

In the musical education they provided for their eldest daughter, Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson followed the times, transitioning from the predominately religious and vocal American experience of music in the early nineteenth century to one that was more secular, sophisticated, and instrumentally diverse.[4] Dickinson’s musical education and sheet music collection also expressed the family’s class status and gender expectations. Throughout the nineteenth century, middle-class young women on both sides of the Atlantic “acquired sheet music as part of their education… [L]earning, collecting, and ‘performing’ music” was not just an artistic outlet and enjoyable diversion, but an expected “accomplishment” of bourgeois femininity: an attribute “for men to admire,” like singing, drawing, dancing, and conversation informed by reading, aimed squarely at courtship and marriage (Meyer-Frazier, 6; Parakilas, 96).

Necessarily, Dickinson’s volume also reveals that she was an accomplished reader of sheet music. This particular reading knowledge meant that she was conversant not just with the vocabulary of musical notation—a “literacy of notes…. Far more complex and difficult to master than that of letters, requir[ing] years of lessons… method books and other printed or handwritten scores” (Parakilas, 98)—but also, given the contents of her collection, with the linguistic and musical conventions of various secular genres: transatlantic popular song, European art music adapted for the piano, political and patriotic music, and music for dancing. Additionally, as Dickinson’s letter reminds us with its reference to the commodity category “sheet music,” she had to possess some ability to decipher its bibliographic codes in order to identify music it was proper for her to play and to play it properly.[5] In other words, the legibility of a sheet of music also depended on a player’s familiarity with sheet music design, ornamentation, and illustration, which articulated its cultural and social attachments—its relationship to race and nationality; to manners indexed to class and gender; to public forms of spectacle (like the plays, operas, and exhibitions from which it sometimes derived); to conventions of attribution and publicity (via the calling out of celebrity performers, dedicatees, and eminent composers, for example).

Despite its important place in her girlhood and its potential to illuminate her musical, artifactual, and reading life—and despite the fact that Dickinson’s poems have themselves inspired generations of composers—Dickinson’s sheet music has been largely ignored by literary critics. Aside from the musicologist George Boziwick’s analyses of the volume’s contents, there are few examinations of her sheet music in Dickinson criticism.[6] It has mostly escaped notice in the discussions of Dickinson’s use of meter and the influence of Isaac Watts.[7] And it is missing from the many considerations of the material structure of her fascicles—folded folio sheets stacked and sewn together, much like the folded sheets of music stacked and fitted into her volume.

These oversights are typical of the fate of sheet music more generally in literary studies. While this critical neglect is not inexplicable—literary critics are not, after all, musicologists—its consequences are nonetheless grave. The staggering increase in the quantity of music published in the United States over the course of the nineteenth century suggests its enormous cultural, social, and economic footprint and its claims upon popular imagination: from “three or four hundred titles altogether” in the eighteenth century to “80,000 to 100,000 items of music offered for sale by those major publishers that made up the U.S. Board of Music Trade” in 1870, as represented by the Complete Catalogue of Sheet Music and Musical Works.[8] Many of these publications were destined for “domestic use in the parlor,” often by middle-class young women (Meyer-Frazier, 4). Where interactions between nineteenth-century music and literature have been examined, literary scholars generally have followed musicologists in giving greater attention to religious and art music than to popular music, which dominated sheet music publication and which was also published in other cheap formats, like broadsides and songsters.[9] The absence of sheet music from our critical purview is also tied to the absence of printed ephemera in general—without which our frameworks for bibliography are, frankly, radically distorted. Moreover, the growth of popular song via sheet music created a channel for the production and publication of lyrics that supported literary careers of many stripes: not just poets and librettists, but fiction writers, musicians, journalists, essayists, editors, playwrights, theater managers, and music publishers, among others, earned money, renown, or artistic satisfaction from popular song-writing. The history of literary professionalization is incomplete without this important commercial tributary. Finally, popular songs contained lyrics that were disseminated via sheet music; whether accompanied by music or detached from it, these lyrics provided examples of rhythm, rhyme, stanza structure, and other acoustic elements, not to mention poetic modes (like meditation or celebration) and themes (like familial and romantic love). For their readers, singers, and listeners, they often served as primers in poetics. Popular song provided models of poetry that are difficult to separate formally from works written without musical notation. And while popular song lyrics that circulated in sheet music involved practices of reception that did differ from those of poetry that circulated in manuscript or print, should we not accept that these two histories are entangled, given the extensive range of sheet music’s distribution, the inevitable overlap in consumption, and the fact that many poetic works crossed over from one format to another? To remedy these critical blind spots, we who are historians of nineteenth-century poetry and print culture should expand our archive.

My premise here is that Dickinson’s sheet music served as a fundamental training ground for her developing sensibilities as a reader and writer of poetry. Specifically, I track the traces in Dickinson’s writing of one piece of music in her volume, an instrumental version of Thomas Moore’s song, “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” (fig. 4).[10] This exceptionally popular song generated a long legacy of editions, piracies, adaptations, and incorporations into other works. Sometimes “The Last Rose of Summer” was published without music and sometimes without words; but the song’s tune and lyrics became so well-known and so bound up with each other that many readers and players of any version over the course of the nineteenth century could have summoned from memory whatever elements were not immediately available. The history of Moore’s song demonstrates one of the quintessential characteristics of popular sheet music in the nineteenth century, at least until the more stringent application of copyright: a profoundly productive instability, due to its availability to reprinting, rearranging, and other kinds of modification. Responding to “The Last Rose of Summer,” I argue, in a suite of early poems that disaggregate and re-stage its basic poetic elements, Dickinson’s poetic elaborations and retorts are thus typical of contemporaneous practices—but they are also unusual in the nature of their engagement and in their isolation from the marketplace. Written, in all likelihood, without the immediate aim of publication, they offer a rare glimpse of her private reading of another poet’s work, carried out in writing.

Figure 4. First page of A. Mine, “The Last Rose of Summer, With Easy Variations.” Boston: George P. Reed [18--]. From [Music: a bound volume of miscellaneous sheet music, without title page / with Emily Dickinson's name written on flyleaf]. Dickinson family library, EDR 469. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Although Thomas Moore’s name is missing from the title page of the instrumental version of “The Last Rose of Summer” in Dickinson’s bound volume, it is certain that she was familiar with its author and lyrics. Dickinson referred to the song by title in a late 1869 letter to her cousin Louise Norcross, and in a letter dated 1880 to Louise and Frances Norcross (L 337, 2:466; L 669, 3:677). But long before then, she was reading works by and about Thomas Moore. In an 1848 letter to Abiah Root, Dickinson mentioned among her books The Epicurean, Moore’s 1827 novel, and it appears she also read his 1817 poem sequence Lalla-Rookh, a copy of which Austin owned.[11] The family library contained a two-volume edition of Lord Byron’s Letters and Journals… with Notices of his Life, edited by Thomas Moore. And Dickinson read Harper’s Monthly, where no fewer than three profiles of Thomas Moore were published between the magazine’s debut in 1850 and 1853.[12] The songs of Moore were also familiar. “The Last Rose of Summer” was in the repertoire at Mount Holyoke (Lowenberg, Musicians, 133). Dickinson referenced it indirectly in an 1845 letter to Root: “Have you any flowers now? I have had a beautiful flower-garden this summer; but they are nearly gone now… I would love to send you a bouquet if I had an opportunity, and you could press it and write under it, The last flowers of summer. Wouldn’t it be poetical, and you know that is what young ladies aim to be now-a-days…” (L 8, 1:21; my emphasis). A letter that same year from Dickinson to her brother Austin was sealed with “a diamond-shaped wafer on which [was] printed ‘Believe me,’ followed by the first bar of ‘Believe me, if all these endearing young charms’, two versions of which appear in Dickinson’s volume of sheet music” (L 22, 1:64). Indeed, of the twenty-eight pieces of music in her volume that I have found to be directly associated with a lyricist, attributed or not, five are indebted to Thomas Moore, although he received a writing or composing credit in just three of them. No other lyricist is so frequently represented.[13]

Dickinson’s knowledge of Moore’s work was by no means unusual, given its widespread popularity—nor was her interaction with this particular song as a source. Dickinson’s relationship to “The Last Rose of Summer,” however, bypassed the customary modes of influence, rendering, or what we could call “reimplementation.” Rather, it appears to have functioned for her as a spring-board for dialogue, allowing her to extend and even argue with Moore’s work. “The Last Rose of Summer,” even after she moved on from the specific topos it delineated, helped her identify and perhaps justify themes that became central to her poetry: the dramas of nature’s simple “people,” worthy of poetic attention in their own right and for the meditations they set into motion about love, friendship, life, and death. It also provided a model of multi-sensory textuality for her developing poetic skills and sensibilities.

In what follows, I first unpack the context and content of Moore’s song; having undergone a radical decline in status in the twentieth century, it has never been critically analyzed, and its appeal for Dickinson would otherwise remain obscure. Indeed, this problem—of how to appreciate her appreciation for a debased exemplar of a debased medium, sheet music—indexes the larger stakes at play in sheet music’s marginal status in the literary archive. Next, I investigate the cluster of early poems in which Dickinson seems to extract and reanimate themes from Moore’s song. Finally, I look at what Moore’s song in the form of sheet music might have offered to Dickinson as an encouraging paradigm: a complex text that relies on and unifies aural, visual, and material elements.


The Career of a Song

“’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” first appeared in the fifth number of Moore’s A Selection of Irish Melodies, published in 1813 by James and William Powers in Dublin and London. Moore wrote the Irish Melodies to modernize and sustain old airs, or, in some cases, to re-purpose new airs written in the spirit of traditional music, by making them sing-able. Conceived by the Powers brothers and modelled after George Thomson’s serial Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice, the Irish Melodies took timely advantage of nationalist sentiment in the period after the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 and the Acts of Union in 1801, antiquarian interest in Gaelic folk culture, and the new popularity of drawing-room or parlor performance, due in part to the increasing availability of the domestic piano. The music—based on sketches supplied by Moore and arranged and polished by John Stevenson (in the first seven numbers) and Henry Rowley Bishop (in the last three numbers)—drew on a variety of sources: Thomson’s Select Collection; the first volume of Edward Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland, containing music he had transcribed from live performances at the Belfast Harp Festival and “corrected” according to classical music standards; Smollett Holden’s two-volume Collection of Old Established Irish Slow and Quick Tunes; O’Farrell’s Collection of Irish National Music; The Hibernian Muse: A Collection of Irish Airs Including the Most Favorite Compositions of Carolan, The Celebrated Irish Bard; several contemporary operas by William Shield; a smattering of other printed sources; manuscripts; and Moore’s own memory (Hunt, Sources and Style, 97-105). The printed sources that Moore used most frequently—Bunting, Holden, Thomson, and O’Farrell—were all issued, like the Irish Melodies, as serial sets of “traditional” songs filtered through art music forms and expectations and reproduced via the laborious and expensive process of musical engraving.

The Irish Melodies sat atop many a domestic piano throughout Europe and North America in a variety of forms: as sheet music for a single song, as a complete “number” containing a dozen or so songs, and as a “selection” containing a cumulative set of numbers. The original edition of ten volumes, published irregularly from 1808 to 1834, went into its fifteenth printing in 1843; at least three new one-volume editions were published in London in ensuing decades (Hamm, n. 3, 44-45). The first American edition of the Irish Melodies was published by G. E. Blake of Philadelphia from new plates in 1808 or 1809. Each succeeding volume of the Powers brothers’ publication was quickly duplicated by Blake, and American “song anthologies began drawing heavily on the Melodies within a year of their first publication” (Hamm, 46). By 1820, many individual songs had been published as sheet music in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston (e.g., fig. 5).[14]

Figure 5. First page of Thomas Moore, John Stevenson, “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer, A Favorite Irish Melody.” New York: William Dubois, [1817-1818]. Early American Sheet Music, Library of Congress.

“Almost universally known drawing-room songs,” the Irish Melodies circulated between and connected an array of cultural arenas (Hunt, “Harper's Legacy,” 3). In England, they were praised by Lord Byron, who told Moore, “‘I have them by rote and by heart… they are my matins and my vespers’”; they were known, quoted, and copied out by Anne and Emily Brontë; they were recited by Inspector Bucket of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, for whom they did the work of wooing Mrs. Bucket.[15] For American musicians and listeners, the Irish Melodies became “far and away the most popular and important collection of Irish songs,” and its contents, along with the songs of Stephen Foster, became “the most popular, widely sung, best-loved, and most durable songs of the entire nineteenth century” in the United States (Hamm, 44). On both sides of the Atlantic, they were a cultural force. There were after-market productions, like “Landscape Illustrations of Moore’s Irish Melodies” in an 1835 issue of the Dublin Penny Journal and Moore’s Irish Melodies, with illustrations by Daniel Maclise.[16] There were many knock-offs: “it would be no exaggeration to claim that the whole development—of composers using Irish tunes in works of art music on the European mainland—was set in motion by Moore” (Klein, 130). And there were homages: the 1879 centenary birthday celebration of Thomas Moore in Dublin, for example, which focused on the Irish Melodies, included a procession led by the Lord Mayor, a chorus of 1,000 children, an exhibition of Moore’s library, an oration, a ball, and two concerts at the Exhibition Palace—a very grand and formal one, and an inexpensive and “rowdy” one attended by “surging, hot and bothered crowds” (McHale, 397).

The Irish Melodies also generated a small industry of books in which the lyrics were published without the music, sometimes with the title Irish Melodies and sometimes in collections of Moore’s “poetical works.” Moore objected to this “divorce,” as he called it; but, propelled by many piracies, he allowed an authorized edition of the Irish Melodies as poems in 1821 (Jordan, 405).

Figure 6. Title page of Thomas Moore, Irish Melodies. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler, 1865. Dickinson family library, EDR 390. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The Dickinson family acquired a copy of this version of the Irish Melodies, a book of poetic texts without music (fig. 6). Their 1865 edition contains an engraved title page that suggests the special appeal of Moore’s Irish ballads as well as the romantic themes of songs like “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer.”[17] Its two amorous figures are in Gaelic costume: he wears the traditional checkered truis, or breeches, and her head appears to be covered by a brat, cloak, which could be worn as a hood (Barrett, 10-12, 16-17). But, like the symbolic Irish harpists on the covers of the original Irish Melodies, they are not aggressively political. Moore idealized Irish music, “‘ancient customs’,” and “‘character’,” but disdained its traditional pentatonic scale and the “‘ignorant and angry multitude… that gross and inflammable region of society’” that was most vocal about and vulnerable to English colonial rule (qtd. in Grobman, 106-107). Rather, aligning with his “paradoxical reputation as both a nationalist poet and a drawing-room dandy,” these figures embody the kind of “sentimental nationalism” that was Moore’s calling card as the “Bard of Erin,” his “philosophically founded and politically motivated attempts to forge a national consciousness through the operations of sympathy” (Love, 68; Kress, 133). “Sympathy” in a variety of guises is especially important to “’Tis the last Rose of Summer,” where it is both described and evoked. And while its explicit “operations” came to seem “sentimental and affected” in the twentieth century, the song also references and prompts some distinctive forms of sympathy that would have resonated with Dickinson’s particular sensibilities (Tessier, 45).[18]

Although several of Moore’s songs were greatly beloved at the time of publication, including “The Canadian Boat Song” and “Believe Me If All These Endearing Young Charms,” “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” became the most frequently adapted or referenced of the Irish Melodies by later composers.[19] The tune, of uncertain origins, but associated with Moore through the title “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer,” was the basis for arrangements by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, among many others. Klein attributes its popular longevity to its appearance as a duet and leitmotif in the 1847 comic opera Martha, oder Der Markt zu Richmond by Friedrich von Flotow, with German libretto by Friedrich Wilhelm Riese, which traveled to Budapest, Prague, London (where it was performed in English and Italian), New York, New Orleans, and Sydney.[20] One and a half million “copies” of the song are purported to have sold in the United States alone by 1894 (Reddall, 207). At first, this number may seem implausible—nor is it clear how it was calculated. But, considering the number of forms those copies could have taken, it is within possibility. Many derived, undoubtedly, from the many separate printings of the sheet music by different publishers, who availed themselves of lax copyright enforcement and trade agreements.[21] Many others could have appeared as the adaptations and true alternative versions discussed above. And still others could have taken the form of what we might call, following the language of software development, “reimplementations”—content re-packaged and re-oriented for different audiences—in all those popular anthologies and songsters, as sheet music without words, and text without music.

Along with this incredible popularity and commercial success, however, came a steep decline in Moore’s artistic reputation, due in part to radical changes in literary values over the course of the twentieth century. Commercial success itself became suspicious, given what a writer like Moore had to do to achieve it; W. B. Yeats famously called him “merely an incarnate social ambition’” (qtd. in Kress, 123). Even more damning for Moore, the criteria for “originality” and for the proper expression of emotion, especially in relation to “sentimentality,” shifted dramatically.[22] Yeats also accused Moore of producing “‘artificial and mechanical’” poetry (qtd. in Kress, 123). The feeling of sympathy that organizes “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” was reclassified as “mawkish” for its “undue preoccupation with emotion, a loss of the perspective that relegates emotion to its proper place in the totality of an experience” in the 1955 textbook The Elements of Poetry—where, as James Kreuzer’s main example of sentimentalism, which has “no legitimate part of poetry,” its language receives the most extended analysis that I have found in any source (Kreuzer, 198). And even though James Joyce “[alludes to] every single one” of the Irish Melodies in Finnegans Wake, a recognition of their omnipresence in everyday Irish life, his works also register “disdain,” “contempt,” and “scorn” for Moore’s starring role in Irish nostalgia (Nolan, 64). Seamus Heaney proposed in 1979 that “modern Ireland rescinded Moore’s title of ‘national bard’ because his characteristic tone was ‘too light, too conciliatory, too colonisé’” (Nolan, 65). Now, Moore’s work and influence are again of interest for what they reveal about Irish nationalism, Orientalist discourse, and folk culture genealogies. Musicologists have attempted to correct predominantly text-centric and dismissive assessments of the Irish Melodies, in part due to a dependence on versions that lacked music, by insisting, as Moore did, that the music and words are an “organic unity… produced by the totality of musical and verbal components” (Jordan, 405-406). Through this screen of modernist embarrassment and recent critical re-appraisal, it can be difficult to discern what made Moore’s work so popular with his contemporaries and several later generations. Given that this particular song—one of the most popular Anglophone songs of the nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic—has never been thoroughly analyzed as a text, it is critical to do so now: to track the ways that Moore concocts sympathy through both lyrics and music in order to appreciate what Dickinson might have perceived in it that is harder for us to detect, but also to illuminate the culture of re-use and adaptation that Moore and Dickinson both participated in through music.[23]

‘Tis the last rose of summer,
          Left bloomin alone;
All her lovely companions
          Are faded and gone;
No flow’r of her kindred,
          No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
          Or give sigh for sigh!

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
          To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
          Go, sleep thou with them;
Thus kindly I scatter
          Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
          Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
          When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
          The gems drop away!
When true hearts are wither’d,
          And fond ones are flown,
Oh! Who would inhabit
          This bleak world alone? (Moore 1813, 10-11)

Moore’s lyrics were usually based on musical suggestions. But sometimes “the original title of an air inspired him,” and sometimes he was motivated by political events, historical sources, legends, and translations from Gaelic sources such as Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789) (Tessier, 29). There is no clear precedent for “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer.” But another song, “In the Morning of Life,” published in the seventh number of Irish Melodies (1818), was based on a tune called “Little Harvest Rose,” which might have provided Moore with a theme. “Little Harvest Rose” was linked to a folk-tale about a young woman who, “having wearied herself by gathering flowers,” falls asleep and three times dreams of roses that she is tempted to pick as a voice whispers, “It is Love!” Guided by a fairy helper, she resists the first rose, a delicate rose-bud, because it will “fade and wither,” and the second rose, large but without fragrance, because it is unnaturally forced; but she is encouraged to pick the third rose, the Little Harvest Rose. Smaller and less gorgeous than the second rose, but perfumed and heavy with dew, it combines sorrow and joy and is thus equated with wisdom, which promises true love.[24] Another source might have been the sheet music by Frederic Hoffman, Les Fruits de Loisir: Or the Groves of Blarney, An Irish Melody with Variations for the Piano Forte (1810), which contains a picture of drooping roses on a bush on the engraved cover (fig. 7).

Figure 7. Engraved cover page for Frederic Hoffmann, Les Fruits de Loisir: Or the Groves of Blarney, an Irish Melody with Variations for the Piano Forte. Music Score. Dublin: Paul Alday, 1810. Dublin Institute of Technology, National Archive of Irish Composers.

It’s quite possible that Moore had no knowledge of either of these local sources, and simply drew on the many layers of rose symbolism developed over a long history—its pre-Christian association with death, its medieval Christian association with religious purity, and the troubadour association, exemplified by the Roman de la Rose, of the garden with romantic love and the rose with femininity.[25] While the rose has frequently been related to England, it also has “specific connotations in Irish patriotic literature” through the image of a “dark-haired girl” who is “invoked to represent Ireland,” as in the song Dark Rosaleen, and as a “‘flower representing Ireland, or freedom, withered by the wind blowing from England’.”[26] Add to this the Catholic Marian symbolism of martyrdom, and the dying rose could well be read as an “[allusion] to fallen heroes,” like other flower references in the Irish Melodies, alongside its more overt narrative (Hunt, Sources and Style, 25).

Regardless of the origin of his inspiration, Moore departs from the standard grammar of romantic rose allegory in his lyrics in some significant ways. These departures are apparent in comparison with the lyrics to Robert Burns’s song, “The Red Red Rose.”

O my Luve's like a red, red rose,
  That's newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
  That's sweetly play'd in tune.—

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
  So deep in luve am I;
And I will love thee still, my Dear,
  Till a' the seas gang dry.—

Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear,
  And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
I will love thee still, my Dear,
  While the sands o' life shall run.—

And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
  And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
  Tho' it were ten thousand mile!—.[27]

Burns’s song incorporates both description of “my Luve,” the love-object, or perhaps the feeling itself, and direct address to “my Bonnie lass,” an approach that Moore also takes in the swivel from his first stanza to the second. If the rose is a substitute for a certain actual lass, however, as in Burns, Moore’s second stanza becomes rather gruesome, as the speaker plucks the rose’s leaves and scatters them. Yet, we are encouraged to see the rose in human terms in the third stanza, where the speaker compares the rose’s demise to his own in the future. Should we read the second stanza as a mistake? Was Moore simply sloppy with his rose metonymy? That seems unlikely, given his painstaking compositional process, which involved many revisions of both words and music as he fitted them to each other.[28] What seems more likely is that Moore did mean to invoke an actual rose in an actual garden, which is neither the representative of a flesh-and-blood lady nor the vehicle for abstract personification, but which is partially anthropomorphized, and with which—or with whom—the speaker feels real kinship. Indeed, there is a legend, or tradition, that Moore wrote the poem initially while visiting Jenkinstown Park, Kilkenny, the estate of his friend Major George Bryan, where he beheld a cultivar of R. chinensis “Old Blush.”[29] A “Last Rose of Summer” rose-bush derived from the Jenkinstown rose is a popular feature of the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin; the fact that it bears “a small, rather unassuming pink bud and flower” might simply give credence to the song’s debt to the “Little Harvest Rose” folk-tale (Hunt, Sources and Style, 24). In any case, with its hybrid human-flower addressee and melancholy turn—from the romantic promise of the rose character to its elegiac mood—Moore’s song demonstrates an entirely different motivation than does Burns’s, with its more conventional cast of characters and emotional structure.

These elements of “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” retain their eccentricity even in comparison to the quintessential Romantic flower poem, William Wordsworth’s “[I wandered lonely as a Cloud].” Certainly, looking back from the twenty-first century, Moore’s diction and syntax seem conventionally and methodically poetic—in phrases like “love’s shining circle,” “Go, sleep thou with them,” and “When true hearts are wither’d”—in comparison to the bracing ordinary language of Wordsworth’s poem. At the same time, while Wordsworth’s daffodils possess “glee” and a “dancing,” “laughing” appearance, these indicators of personality exist only to transmit inspiration to the poet, who becomes “gay” in their company, and profits especially from the “wealth” and “pleasure” they bring as memories (Wordsworth, 418). While the poem perfectly conveys the famous formula of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” perhaps Wordsworth’s most significant claim to originality, it is precisely because the daffodils’ only real power comes from the poet’s ability to reconstruct them imaginatively that they do not truly exist as organisms with lives separate from his. Moore’s anthropomorphization is definitely human-centered—the rose’s fate prompts the speaker to consider his own—but it does take place, it seems, in the presence of and in relation to a living plant. Moreover, in Moore’s poem, the speaker is not simply recreating the rose in his imagination or transforming it into a readable signifier; this particular plant also acts upon the speaker through the visible marks of its mortality, which alert him to a destiny they share. From this perspective, the speaker’s decision to remove and scatter the rose’s dead leaves is not at all incongruous; whether he is merely hastening a natural process or gardening—a layer of leaves on the ground does provide a protective and nutritious mulch, after all—his actions express care for the rose as a rose.

A final sympathetic operation occurs at the poem’s end. Burns’s poem, obedient to the traditions of rose romance, relies for its pathos—or its ruse, depending on your point of view—on the separation between the presumably male speaker and his lass. Moore, in contrast, complicates the romantic potential of the rose motif by turning to “friendships,” “Love’s shining circle.” The “gems” within that circle include both “true hearts” and “fond ones,” and while either phrase could be interpreted as romantic, either phrase might also refer to platonic friendship. Of course, the whole gesture towards “friendships” might be a feint—a way to disguise erotic attachment while upholding the proprieties of drawing-room performance. But recent critical attention to Moore has revealed “a new and enlightened social ethic when it comes to gender, gender difference and the social company and intellectual labours of the two genders [sic]” (Caraher and McCleave, 5). Moore’s scoring for “A Canadian Boat Song,” for example, calls for a voice in the soprano range, a second voice in the soprano, mezzo-soprano, or alto range, and a third voice in the baritone range, which rhythmically “meet and harmonise” around a text that emphasizes a collective of equals (5). Even putting aside Moore’s own beliefs, the “hugely commercial success” of “A Canadian Boat Song” in 1805 might have paved the way for the Irish Melodies and prompted Moore to compose other evocations of collectivity, even mixed-gender collectivities (4). Indeed, several versions of “The Last Rose of Summer” were arranged for combinations of high and low voices, indicating that Moore’s publishers, at least, were attentive to this potential in its appeal (e.g., fig. 8).

Figure 8. Cover of James G. Maeder, Six Irish Melodies by Thomas Moore Esq. Boston: E. H. Wade, 1840. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

In short, while the premise of “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” might lead us to expect a romantic relationship, it redirects us to the deep feelings of friendship—and the relationship between the rose and the speaker we might see, by the time we finish the song, as one that is companionable rather than, or as well as, romantic. The suggestion that the speaker assumes the position of the female rose—reading himself into her seasonal time-line and her need for “mates of the garden”—also opens up the possibility of cross-gender identification, or, on the other hand, a speaker who is feminine. Indeed, in Flotow’s Martha, “Letze Rose” is an aria sung by the title character, a soprano.

The structure of the song is typical of what Neil Grobman calls Moore’s “lyrical ballads,” as opposed to more conventionally “narrative ballads,” with its a-b-c-b rhyme scheme and 4-3-4-3 ballad stanza.[30] It is strophic, like almost all parlor songs, following the ballad form A A B A; a line of verse (or two lines, as it was usually printed) completes each piece of its musical structure. The first two A sections are complicated, musically, by the B section, which ends with a rising melisma; the final A section of each stanza then serves as a kind of resolution. While the main theme is thus repeated nine times over the course of the song’s three stanzas, its repetitiveness is diluted by the different feeling of the A section the third time around. The repetitiveness is also diluted by the song’s distinctive meter. Combining anapests and iambs with some extra syllables, it is somewhat hard to “hear” on the page and is not perfectly even—a not uncommon feature of his songs of which Moore was aware and which he defended:

Those occasional breaches of the laws of rhythm, which the task of adapting words to airs demands of the poet, though very frequently one of the happiest results of his skill, become blemishes when the verse is separated from the melody, and require, to justify them, the presence of the music to whose wildness or sweetness the sacrifice has been made. (qtd. in Jordan, 406)

Moreover, the song’s rhythm was designed to be corrupted in performance, as Moore himself—the consummate performer of his work—instructed:

Attend as little as possible to the rhythm, or time in singing them. The time, indeed, should always be made to wait upon the feeling… A strict and mechanical observance of time completely destroys all those pauses, lingerings, and abruptnesses, which the expression of passion and tenderness requires. (qtd. in Grobman, 110)

This advice seems to contradict Moore’s efforts, with his collaborators, to musically “correct” the “primitive,” “barbaric,” “simple,” “irregular,” “‘wild and rough’” structure and tonality of the original Irish airs (Tessier, 11-15, passim). That is, if the tunes needed to be made more regular, delicate, and harmonic, why disrupt the clockwork in their execution? Here is more evidence, in fact, that the songs were principally aimed at the genteel English drawing-room—“‘the piano-fortes of the rich and educated’”—as opposed to the Irish fireside and broadside press: a performance of feeling that was so powerful as to be readily perceptible, as a departure from established rhythm, could bring the Irish singer and his English listeners into sympathy (qtd. in Grobman, 107).  

In the original Irish Melodies, the tune that accompanies “’Tis the last Rose of Summer” is identified as “The Groves of Blarney,” but that is a title that derives, paradoxically, from a poem, not an air. Its author, Richard Alfred Millikin, composed it as a burlesque in about 1798 of yet another poem: “Castle Hyde,” by an anonymous “itinerant poet” singing the praises, in excess, of a local mansion; Millikin, who may have had access to the text of “Castle Hyde” from a broadsheet, praises the nearby Castle Blarney in his parody. The music was published in Bunting with the Irish title, “Aislean an Oigfear,” or “The Young Man’s Dream,” and as the aforementioned sheet music in 1810, but it seems likely that Moore and Stevenson got the tune from Holden’s Collection, where it was called “The Groves of Blarney.”[31] In other words, Moore derived his charming, poignant song from a “traditional” tune that was, essentially, a contemporary’s inside joke. While many of the airs that were the basis of songs in the Irish Melodies had to be transposed downward to put them into vocal range—especially Moore’s own, since he used his voice as the standard against which the song was calibrated—this one, already a song, did not require that kind of alteration.[32] However, by removing some notes, adding others, shortening it from four stanzas to three, and slowing down the tempo, Moore did transform it from a falsely solemn comic song into a song of genuine and rather complex emotion, in which the simple loveliness of the tune stands in for the rose’s beauty and simultaneously expresses and compensates for the grief occasioned by the rose’s demise. These inextricably fused feelings—of the joy felt in the presence of natural beauty and the sorrow felt in the presence of natural death—approximate, in a way, that “romantic mixture of mirth and sadness” that Moore considered the archetype of Irishness (Moore, 1878, 26). More important for its long popular ascendancy than Moore’s gentrified nationalism, however, is the fact that “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” precisely strikes, with its “romantic mixture” of sweetness and melancholy, the exemplary mood of the transatlantic parlor song. This mood, despite the frequent recourse of lyrics to themes of love, loss, and longing, is perhaps best described not as “sentimental” but as “sympathetic”—for the goal was not simply to voice these themes, but also to bring instrumentalists, singers, and listeners together into, indeed, a “shining circle” of shared feeling.[33]

Dickinson, even as a teen-ager, was already attentive to the song’s overtly “poetical” machinations and was perhaps somewhat ambivalent about them, as her 1845 letter to Abiah Root indicates; but we should not attribute her sassiness there to a modernist-style discomfort with the song’s emotion. It seems more likely that she could have grown sensitive to its pervasive presence and even her own frequent playing of it—given its simplicity, it might have been one of the earliest pieces of music she collected. Notwithstanding any possible over-exposure, “The Last Rose of Summer” was made of components that Dickinson must have found provocative in combination: a first-person speaker who addresses a flower; a flower whose needs and desires are imagined; a meditation on mortality that does not merely deploy natural referents symbolically but is attentive to and altered by natural cycles of life and death; a profound reverence for friendship and its solaces; structural repetitions that are ingeniously arranged to suggest emotional variation; a rhythmic architecture that does not just tolerate small deviations from patterns but can allow them to be powerfully affective; and a rhyme scheme that derives surprising elasticity from its very simplicity. All of these elements, inter-related through music, unfolded in the time of song: not simply as an emotional expression moving into a conventional dramatic tension, as in Burns’s song, and not as a retrospective insight, as in Wordsworth’s poem, but as the incremental, intertwined experiences of the fictional speaker and the real-world participants in the song—the speaker who is prompted by a rose to understand his death in contrastive relation to the value of a loving circle, and the song’s performers and listeners who are enacting such a circle. Certainly, Dickinson could have found many of these elements in other works, be they poems, hymns, or other parlor songs. But in “The Last Rose of Summer” these elements were already assembled in conjunction, in a song that was universally admired—and that Dickinson herself knew intimately from her volume of sheet music.


The Rose Writes Back

While the career of “The Last Rose of Summer” is extraordinary, it is also characteristic of a vernacular poetic and musical culture very different from our own: one in which transformation, variation, casual collaboration, borrowing, and what we would now call plagiarism were common and perhaps as valuable as fixed formal identity and originality. Evidence of these practices is present throughout Dickinson’s own sheet music volume. Words and music are pulled apart and versioned: well-known songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “Auld Lang Syne” are presented without lyrics; traditional tunes like “Kinloch of Kinloch” are rearranged “with variations.” Authorship is transferable and obscurable: white musicians and composers gain recognition by co-opting African-American folk songs and performing as blackface minstrels; a poem by Eliza Cook set to music by Henry Russell becomes of the one most popular parlor songs of all time, “The Old Arm-Chair”; a poem by Joanna Baillie set to music by Beethoven as one of his Scottish airs, “The Bonny Boat,” is published without her name; “Bonny Doon with Variations” is published without either the words of “The Banks O’ Doon” or the name Robert Burns. Resonant morphemes, like “home” and “rose,” are repeated and reworked in pieces by various hands. While some of these practices would have been hidden to Dickinson (who might not have been able to identify unnamed authors or missing texts or even know of their existence), others would have been apparent. Certainly, she could have interpreted the practices that were visible to her as permission to contribute.

In fourteen early poems, which Ralph Franklin dates to fascicles copied from 1858 to 1860, Dickinson appears to join the dance of borrowing from, attenuated collaboration with, and transformation of “The Last Rose of Summer.” She supplements Moore’s original scene with her botanical knowledge and deep sympathy for the miniature worlds hidden inside gardens, woods, and fields. She sometimes lingers on death—its solemnity and mystery, but also its utter ordinariness in nature, which can make it inconspicuous. She sometimes summons the radiance and complication of friendship, reading it into the landscape as well as the human environment. And she also seems to respond to the intriguing turns in Moore’s song—its emotional transitions and departures from romantic plot—by experimenting with mood and riddle forms.

The clearest link to Moore’s song is “When Roses cease to bloom, Sir” (Fr8), which appears with four other “Rose”-linked poems in fascicle one (fig. 9):

Figure 9. Emily Dickinson, “When Roses cease to bloom, Sir” (Fr8). Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 82. Amherst College. From the Emily Dickinson Archive.

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
Opon this Summer’s day
Will idle lie - in Auburn – Then take my flowers - pray!


Here we have roses and summer and the end of blooming and a dialogue between a man and a flower. But in place of Moore’s premise—the last rose of summer should be picked as a kindness, to save her from loneliness, which gives the speaker the occasion to reflect on death—we have in Dickinson’s poem a retort from the point of view of a flower-speaker who is still firmly situated within “this Summer’s day,” and suggests that “Sir” take her blooms only after “the hand that paused to gather” “will idle lie—in Auburn.” Her response is thus more like a prequel, because the seasonal setting has been shifted back to summer and autumn/“Auburn” is in the future. This change in situation and speaker also changes the trajectory of agency: the decision about when to pick flowers is not “Sir”’s alone to make. More strikingly, if the hand of “Sir” “will idle lie,” we are left to wonder if his anticipated future idleness simply refers to the seasonal transition—from a summer abundant with blooms to a deciduous autumn that offers little reward for a flower-gatherer—or if there is an insinuation that he is the one who will be absent or dead, instead of or in addition to the rose.

The tone of this poem is somewhat ambiguous. Is the flower indignant? Or is she expressing a genuine plea for deferral? Whichever side of the fence one may choose on this question, it is clear that Dickinson’s flower-speaker also gives Moore’s text a reality check. Expanding the rose’s “companions” to include violets and bees, she invokes pollination and sexual reproduction, as well as the inter-dependencies of species. As Dickinson would have known from the herbarium she compiled in the 1840s, from her family’s garden and conservatory, and from her own walks in and beyond Amherst, violets are often the “companions” of roses in the wild and in the garden. In the wild, the native species Rosa carolina, or pasture rose—what Dickinson labeled “Rosa parviflora,” or “small flowered rose” in her herbarium—grows in a variety of habitats, including woodlands and meadows, as does Viola pubescens, downy yellow violet (Herbarium, 11-12, 46-47). In the garden, Viola tricolor, a wildflower in its native Europe known in North America as “wild pansy,” “heart’s ease,” and “love-in-idleness,” can serve as a groundcover, keeping soil moist and masking the leggy stalks of cultivated roses like Rosa × centifolia 'Muscosa' and Rosa rubigninosa, all sampled in Dickinson’s herbarium (46-47, 39-40, 41-42). Despite her knowledge of botanical variety and propagation, Dickinson here and in almost all her poems chooses common names for flowers and restricts the number of species in a poem. The consequence of this choice in this poem is that, without having to think very hard about what any one plant looks like, the reader can easily see the pink or red and purple invoked by the words “rose” and “violet,” which are also the names of colors. Followed by the golden yellows of summer sun and bumblebees and then the word “auburn” to suggest a time of year, the overall effect is a kind of seasonal time-lapse: the colors lead us from the bright blooming time of spring and early summer to the warmth of mid summer to the autumnal tones at the end. In this way, even though the poem’s narrative is set in summer, its colors bring us into the pathos of fall, when flowers die, corresponding to the setting of “The Last Rose of Summer.”

The other thirteen poems that form this cluster are not so explicit in their response to Moore’s song (fig. 10). But they demonstrate a loose coherence in that, in all, Dickinson dismembers motifs particular to “The Last Rose of Summer” and redeploys them, extracting them from Moore’s plot so as to dramatize certain themes: the anthropomorphic rose and its “mates,” mortality across species, and love that may be romantic, companionable, or both.

First Line                                 Position in Fascicles Franklin # in 1998 Franklin fascicle date Johnson # in 1955
A sepal - petal - and a thorn F01.01.005 25 1858 19
Summer for thee, grant I may be F01.04.022 7 1858 31
When Roses cease to bloom, Sir F01.04.023 8 1858 32
Garland for Queens, may be F01.04.026 10 1858 34
Nobody knows this little Rose F01.04.027 11 1858 35
Whose cheek is this? sent to Sue 48 1859 82
If I should cease to bring a Rose F02.02.010 53 1859 56
Lethe in my flower F02.04.013 54 1859 1730
If she had been the Mistletoe F02.04.019 60 1859 44
I keep my pledge. F02.05.022 63 1859 46
So bashful when I spied her! F03.01.004 70 1859 91
The morns are meeker than they were F03.04.019 32 1858/59 12
Pigmy seraphs-gone astray- F04.01.005 96 1859 138
Tho' my destiny be Fustian F10.02.005 131 1860 163

Figure 10. Table of fourteen Emily Dickinson poems identified with “The Last Rose of Summer.” Data from “List of Emily Dickinson poems” and Poems.

All fourteen poems were copied into fascicles 1, 2, 3, 4, and 10, in 1858, 1859, and 1860, except for one that was sent to Susan Gilbert Dickinson in 1859; they thus comprise some of the earliest poems that Dickinson wanted to preserve—the closest in time to her most active period as a pianist and collector of sheet music. Certainly, flowers other than roses appear in poems from this period: in fascicles 1 through 6, for example, thirty-five poems beyond these fourteen mention blossoms, flowers, and gardens generally, or specific plants, such as violets, daisies, daffodils, clover, and crocuses—or make us guess at the identity of dandelions or forget-me-nots.[34] And roses that do not seem to share in the themes of “The Last Rose of Summer” appear in other poems as well: six poems from the years 1858 to 1860 mention roses without bringing them into contact with the other Moore motifs, as do twenty-two poems from 1861 to 1883.[35] What unifies this cluster of fourteen poems cannot be strictly demarcated; there are some other rose poems that may be tenuously connected to these themes, for example. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that in this earliest period of her self-definition as a poet, copying finished poems and writing new ones, Dickinson would have returned so often to the motifs of “The Last Rose of Summer”—even and especially as it became clear, as her practice evolved and she became more adept, that other flower species had just as much or more meaning for her, such as the daisies she mentioned with increasing frequency as she came to identify with them, and the violets, gentians, pinks, lilies, daffodils, and so on, that she grew in her garden and encountered on her walks.

One feature of Moore’s poem that seems to have attracted her particular attention is the anthropomorphization of the rose. While Moore relies on, and then troubles, the symbolic association between a rose with a desired female object, in Dickinson’s hands the implicit allegory becomes a more explicit transformation or revelation of the speaker into/as a flower. For example, in “A sepal - petal - and a thorn” (Fr25), she breaks the rose down into its constituent parts (sepal, petal, thorn), adds some “companions” familiar from her own garden (dew, bees, a breeze, trees), and with these ingredients devises a riddle to which the speaker is the solution:

Figure 11. Emily Dickinson, “A sepal - petal - and a thorn” (Fr25). Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 82. Amherst College. From the Emily Dickinson Archive.

A sepal - petal - and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn -
A flask of Dew - A Bee or two -
A Breeze - a’caper in the trees -
And I’m a Rose!


A more complex flower-speaker riddle is proposed by “Summer for thee, grant I may be” (Fr7) (figs. 11 and 12).

Figures 11 and 12. Emily Dickinson, “Summer for thee, grant I may be” (Fr7). Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 82. Amherst College. From the Emily Dickinson Archive.

Summer for thee, grant I may be
When Summer days are flown!
Thy music still, when Whippowil
And Oriole - are done!

For thee to bloom, I'll skip the tomb
And row my blossoms o'er!
Pray gather me -
   Anemone -
Thy flower - forevermore!

The “I” promises the “thee” to serve as “Summer” and as “music” even “When Summer days are flown.” The blooming is transposed to the interlocuter (“For thee to bloom”), while the flower-speaker will “skip the tomb / And row my blossoms o’er” in order to stay “Thy flower - forevermore!” The poem seems to be spoken from the pages of Dickinson’s herbarium; the flower is giving “thee” permission to gather her up to be preserved in a kind of after-life, and thus to serve as a winter-time feast of summer essence. Although the flower in question is an anemone, the presence of a flower-speaker, the flower’s imminent but suspended death, the flower’s self-sacrifice for love, and the emphasis on summer in this poem—anemone, in contrast, are usually associated with spring—bring it into the realm of “The Last Rose of Summer.” So why did Dickinson not conjure us a rose instead? The anemones in Dickinson’s herbarium, Anemone thalictroides (thalictrium thalictroides), Anemone nemorosa (quinquefolia), Anemone virginica (virginiana), and Anemone cylindraca (Anemone cylindrica), do closely resemble roses: all bear in their native woodlands and meadows a single corolla of, usually, five to eight petals, much like a wild rose, but white, as opposed to the typical pink of Rosa virginiana (Herbarium, 40-41, 60-61). Dickinson would have known also of the capaciousness of the genus “rosa” and the application of the word “rose” to the common names of plants not within that genus, or its subtraction from the common names for plants within it—for example, Enothera bienna, common evening primrose, Malva (Hibiscus syriacus), Rose-of-Sharon, and Rosa lutea (foetida), Austrian brier (Herbarium, 53-54, 55-56, 50-51). I would hazard that she wanted an “anemone” for the sake of rhyme and meter, for the delicious density of “anemone” in sound and association—so similar to “an enemy,” and “an enemy” does in fact figure in the love tragedies that anemones symbolize in Greek mythology—and to emphasize the blossom’s fragility and ephemerality.[36] Dickinson’s flower repertoire would soon extend beyond the rose and mostly leave it behind. Perhaps this trajectory is foreshadowed even in this early rose poem.

“Summer for thee, grant I may be” reminds us of another dramatic element that Dickinson extricates from Moore and amplifies: the picking of a rose, and the association of that act with death. “Nobody knows this little Rose - ” (Fr11) plays a trick with our expectations of the gift of a rose as a fulfillment, as an agent and emblem of attachment (fig. 13).

Figure 13. Emily Dickinson, “Nobody knows this little Rose - ” (Fr11). Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 82. Amherst College. From the Emily Dickinson Archive.

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!

The rose is presented as insignificant, a sole “pilgrim” available to the speaker to “take… / from the ways” (that is, roadsides or paths) in order to give it meaning in a human context, by “lift[ing] it up to thee.” This act of taking, it seems, will have few repercussions: “Only a Bee will miss it,” “Only a Butterfly,” and so on; but through the accumulation of similar examples we eventually understand how central the rose is to its tiny ecosystem—how poignant its detachment—and “how easy” for a “Little Rose” to die when plucked. And yet, this poem was sent to a recipient accompanied by an actual rose, an occasional practice that Dickinson at this time in her life undertook only when sending poems to intimates.[37] So “this little Rose” gestures literally to the gift of a rose that is, alas, dead—but the tragedy of its death, rising gradually to consciousness in the poem, served in its original context to accentuate the value of the relationship. “See how sad it is to pick a rose and kill it,” the poem tells us; “but you are worth it,” says the withered rose.[38]

A related notion that soon comes into play is the rose as a marker of death, not just its victim. Doubtless Dickinson would have been encouraged in this direction by the great expansion in the nineteenth century of the symbolic capacity of flowers: “While in the former [eighteenth] century flowers were only incidental items, in the latter [nineteenth century] they became capable of representing the deepest feelings... Flowers were considered suitable to express the reader's most precious emotions, in an internalized way” (Seaton, 696). Roses would represent an especially high estimation of the departed, according to the “language of flowers” that Dickinson knew from her Familiar Lectures on Botany, which included, after the lectures, the classification tables, and the plates, a glossary of flower symbolism that defined all the different colors and varieties of roses in positive terms, such as modesty, innocence, beauty, sweetness, superior merit, and “without pretension… would I were of more worth for your sake” (173). Although the “language of flowers” was usually used to communicate with friends and lovers, the recent rise of the garden cemetery movement—most prominently signaled by the opening of Mount Auburn in Boston in 1831, a project jointly sponsored by the newly formed Massachusetts Horticultural Society—had introduced “the plenitude and beauties of nature combined with art” to American  mourning rituals (French, 46).[39] In these new cemeteries, trees and flowering shrubs plentifully embedded into the landscape were intended to help mourners “realize that ‘in the mighty system of the universe, not a single step of the destroyer, Time, but is made subservient to some ulterior purpose of reproduction, and the circle of creation and destruction is eternal’” (French, 47). Dickinson would have seen this new ideology in action in Amherst, as the “Centre Burying Ground” established in 1730 was, between 1833 and 1854, “upgraded with new circulation paths, a town tomb[,] and perimeter fencing in emulation of the rural cemetery movement…” (“Amherst West Cemetery”). So, it seems quite likely that Dickinson was calling up the “language of flowers” in adapting the rose to a mourning scene in “I keep my pledge” (Fr63) (fig. 14).

Figure 14. Emily Dickinson, “I keep my pledge” (Fr63). Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 80. Amherst College. From the Emily Dickinson Archive.

I keep my pledge.
I was not called —
Death did not notice me.
I bring my Rose.
I plight again,
By every sainted Bee —
By Daisy called from hillside —
by Bobolink from lane.
Blossom and I —
Her oath, and mine —
Will surely come again.

The tableau that emerges here shows a speaker holding a rose at a deathbed or graveside. It may be the token of her pledge to the one who has died, or even to Death itself. “I” renews her pledge, revealing what she swears by—the precious triumvirate of Bee, Daisy, and Bobolinkbut not what the vow is. If we expect her to consecrate the rose to this site, however, we are mistaken. In the last three lines, “Blossom” is unexpectedly and emphatically personified by the line beneath “Her” and, with the comma between “oath” and “and,” the oath seems to divide in two—one for “Blossom” and one for “I,” even if, depending on how you read it, the oaths are coincident. One figure arrived holding a rose, but two figures leave.

In “If I should cease to bring a Rose” (Fr53), the speaker is again bearing a rose as a token, or not bearing one, as the case may be; but instead of an anthropomorphic metamorphosis—towards something more solidly figural—the rose resolves into pure sign and the speaker falls into the grave. The poem begins “If I should cease to bring a Rose / Upon a festal day / ’Twill be because beyond the Rose / I have been called away,” thus invoking both the celebratory and funereal potential of roses, but it ends quite unequivocally: “’Twill be because Death’s finger / Claps my murmuring lip.” Here it is the flower-picker who is called by death, not the flower, but the implication is that a life-time is measured by the picking of flowers. In a third poem, “‘Lethe’ in my flower” (Fr54), the Underworld draught of oblivion gives the speaker the power to see “Jupiter! my father!” and then “I perceive the rose!” The rose is either the last of three visions, or, if we read “Jupiter” and “my father” as exclamations rather than as identifications, it is the only vision. Either way, the rose signals finality.

While the roses in these poems speak, shape-shift, and sometimes function as a gateway, via graveside and underworld, to the unknown, the bees, butterflies, bobolinks, orioles, whippoorwills, and daisies serve as anchors. They are points of reference, summoning with compact efficiency real-world meadows, woods, and rural waysides, and as such they are also companions, like the violet and bumblebee of “When Roses cease to bloom, Sir.” In both these capacities, they also help Dickinson expand the motif of “Love’s shining circle” from Moore’s poem, and its ambiguous invocations of friendship and romantic love.

In the first poem in which a rose helps to define a relationship, “Garlands for Queens, may be - ” (Fr10), it is distinguished from flora that might be grander or nobler: the first line’s “Garlands for Queens” and the second line’s “Laurels - for rare degree” (fig. 15).

Figure 15. Emily Dickinson, “Garlands for Queens, may be - ” (Fr10). Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 82. Amherst College. From the Emily Dickinson Archive.

Garland for Queens, may be -
Laurels - for rare degree
Of soul or sword.
Ah - but remembering me -
Ah - but remembering thee -
Nature in chivalry -
Nature in charity -
Nature in equity -
This Rose ordained!

The qualities “ordained” by the rose, in contrast, have to do with what it enables, “Ah - but remembering me - ” and “Ah - but remembering thee - ,” a loop of memory made by two equal partners. Or, perhaps, they are not remembering together but being remembered, or re-membered even, by a nature that operates for them “in chivalry / … in charity / … in equity.” The “Queens” of the first line make it tempting (if irrational, since those “Queens” differ from “me” and “thee”) to read this as a declaration of connection between women; that possibility is perhaps enhanced by “chivalry,” “charity,” and “equity,” names that suggest an expanded canon of female Virtues or Muses. Or, it might be that “chivalry” pushes the poem over the line into something more orthodoxly heterosexual. In both readings, the rose blurs the line between the romantic and the platonic.

In “So bashful when I spied her!” (Fr70), copied into the third fascicle about a year later, the symmetry of “me” and “thee” is destabilized by the introduction of a third party (fig. 16). The flower here—not explicitly a rose, but her “blushing” makes her pink—is positioned first as a love object, and then as a token of love for another. The speaker gives the act of picking a flower romantic and even erotic qualities, and the flower seems to reciprocate with a conventionally feminine response.

Figure 16. Emily Dickinson, “So bashful when I spied her!” (Fr70). Poems: Packet I, Fascicle 3. Houghton Library, Harvard University. From the Emily Dickinson Archive.

So bashful when I spied her!
So pretty—so ashamed!
So hidden in her leaflets
Lest anybody find—

So breathless till I passed her—
So helpless when I turned
And bore her struggling blushing,
Her simple haunts beyond!

But then the romance, or rape, is displaced by the speaker onto another, secret object:

For whom I robbed the Dingle—
For whom betrayed the Dell—
Many, will doubtless ask me,
But I shall never tell!

Thus, the two-some of “The Last Rose of Summer,” echoed in “When Roses cease to bloom, Sir” and “Summer for thee, grant I may be,” becomes a romantic triangle. This pattern is clearly spelled out in “If she had been the Mistletoe” (Fr60B), where the speaker’s correct personification “classification” provides the premise (fig. 17):

Figure 17. Emily Dickinson, “If she had been the Mistletoe” (Fr60B). Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 80. Amherst College. From the Emily Dickinson Archive.

If she had been the Mistletoe
And I had been the Rose -
How gay upon your table
My velvet life to close!
Since I am of the Druid -
And she is of the dew -
I’ll deck Tradition’s buttonhole -
And send the Rose to you.

Like a riddle, this poem’s solution requires us to understand the association of mistletoe with Celtic religion, hence the “Druid,” as well as with the Christmas tradition of the kiss. To “ha[ve] been the Rose” might have been “gay,” but the speaker seems content to serve as a kind of romantic witness or “buttonhole” decoration, who will instead “send the Rose” to the unnamed addressee. The competitive potential collapses as the “Mistletoe” withdraws. Indeed, one infers that there are benefits to this role as an evergreen bystander, since the Rose’s dewy, “velvet life” as an admired ornament upon a table seems to await imminent closure.

Perhaps friendship is the way to go. “Tho’ my destiny be Fustian” (Fr131) seems to be of that opinion—then complicates the traditional associations of “romance” versus “friendship.” The speaker begins by comparing herself to an ideal romantic heroine, who possesses a “damask” destiny, a “silver apron,” and a “rosier” bosom; but then claims that she prefers her own “gipsey being” and “sunburnt bosom” because “You and I, and Dr. Holland, / Bloom Eternally.” The addressee “You” and “Dr. Holland,” having suddenly appeared in association with the “I,” are brought into a rose metaphor that recalls but rewrites Dickinson’s initial retort to Moore: “Roses of a steadfast summer / In a steadfast land, / Where no Autumn lifts her pencil—/ And no Reapers stand!” Everlasting roses, as opposed to last roses, resist the tragedy of seasonal change, perhaps because they are steadfast friends and not lovers. But at the same time, the staying power of friendship seems very much like the til-death-do-us-part devotion usually associated with passionate love. This poem was originally sent to Elizabeth Holland, the “You” here; its evocation of roses in relation to the romance of friendship is echoed in a letter sent to Mrs. Holland in about 1856, in which, meditating on death and certain verses in Revelations, Dickinson writes:

If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come, and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not waken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below… Dear Mrs. Holland, I love, to-night—love you and Dr. Holland, and “time and sense”—and fading things, and things that do not fade.

I’m so glad you are not a blossom, for those in my garden fade, and then a “reaper whose name is Death” has come to get a few to help him make a bouquet for himself, so I’m glad you are not a rose—and I’m glad you are not a bee, for where they go when the summer’s done, only the thyme knows… (L 185, 2:329).

The “reaper” quotation comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Reaper and the Flowers” from his first book Voices of the Night. But the words that percolate throughout Dickinson’s letter—“roses” and “fading”—do not appear in Longfellow’s poem; rather, like the phrase “when the summer’s done,” they seem torn from Moore’s.[40]

What is significant about Dickinson’s theatricalized adaptations of the “Last Rose of Summer” is not how prominent they are, wholesale, within her poetry overall—the explicit deployments of the pity and spectacle of a rose’s death wane in 1860, transforming into more flexible flower themes and broader nature fables. As a cluster of elements that could be dis- and reassembled, however, Moore’s example seems to have activated tropes that we now regard as quintessentially Dickinsonian: poems that address or emanate from a dead or dying figure, or put human mortality into a natural context; that present a riddle of identity; that express indefinable passion; that attend to and beautify the dramas of nature’s small “sovereign people,” like flowers, bees, birds, and snakes.


Playable Poetry

Beyond the effects of “The Last Rose of Summer” as a text on her texts, however, it’s also possible that Moore’s song offered Dickinson an alternative model of textuality itself: in lieu of logocentricity, “The Last Rose of Summer” and other songs in her bound volume, as she encountered them first and most absorbingly, as sheet music, may have suggested ways of incorporating musicality into language and materiality into the “playability” of a poem. Furthermore, Dickinson would have seen, specifically in “The Last Rose of Summer,” how a poem originally intended for musical accompaniment may also be turned into notation-less text.

Dickinson’s sheet music, positioned within the network of poetic circulation, music publication, piano praxis, and parlor ritual that gave it meaning, brings important new data to long-standing questions of poetic and material form. Is Dickinson’s poetry in its essence a poetry of sound, a poetry of rhythm and rhyme? Or is it a poetry of visual apprehension—of lineation and pagination—that embraces as sources of poetic meaning handwriting and the material properties of paper supports? If the former, is her prosody, and especially her reliance on common meter, obedient or subversive? Do we read her practices of versioning and fascicle-making as utilitarian techniques, aesthetic choices, or political interventions in the conventions of literary production? To what extent do we regard as “authoritative” her manuscript fragments, her fascicles, the few publications of her work in her life-time, the books that appeared posthumously? What was her relationship to the popular poetic culture of her time? What was her relationship to the gender mores of her time? How did her family, schooling, village culture, and of course her reading—her most significant and sustained connection to the world beyond Amherst—shape her poetic sensibility? I do not mention these debates in order to rehearse them here—indeed, some have been quite thoroughly addressed—but to point to the wide range of topics that might be enriched by examinations of her sheet music. Three key issues are especially likely to profit from data that can be extracted from her sheet music: Dickinson’s relationship to gendered forms of popular culture; the connection in her work between materiality and meaning; and the connection between visual apprehension and sound.

I use the word “data” deliberately, because printed music is in fact a masterful expression of what we would now call data visualization. The amount of information it displays in dense and yet highly legible form to those who are fluent in its vocabulary is astounding. A typical sheet of music from Dickinson’s book displays a minimum of four fundamental, simultaneous information flows about how the piece should sound.

The foundational elements of musical sound that are represented by the musical sign system are rhythm, melody, harmony, and form. Rhythm is indicated by notation that represents the duration of sounds and silences, and by the time signature that shows how beats will be organized into measures of equal extent. Melody is a sequence of pitches, or notes, that are rhythmically arranged; in Western music, it derives from families of pitches, indicated by the key signature: symbols for sharp or flat notes (naturals being the default) placed on the staff, alerting the performer to the group of related notes to expect. Harmony is the “vertical” addition of pitches to the “horizontal” sequence of melody, often through chords of notes played simultaneously—again, the particular set of notes that will complement or contrast with the melodic progression is indicated by the key signature, and, for an instrument like the piano, by its own staff with notation. Form, or the overall structure of a piece of music, fundamentally relies on rhythm and rhythmic conventions, such as common meter, but at the larger scale, it also has to do with the treatment of melodic and harmonic phrases: their repetition, identified by the repeat sign and terms like “da capo” and “fine” that define the limits of the sections to be repeated; and their transformation, though architectural conventions like the “coda,” an ending that expands on a musical phrase. Structural patterns also govern entire works, like the strophic form of most parlor music and the conventions of musical genres like madrigals, masses, and motets. These genres are sometimes indicated by the title of a piece, but formal features are also discernible in the notation that makes up musical phrases and sections.

Additional layers of musical data are represented by the clef, which anchors the appropriate timbre for a particular instrument; by terms such as “allegro,” “largo,” “presto,” etc., that provide information about tempo, along with cues to the player to slow down or speed up, through terms like “ritardando”; and by terms like “crescendo” and “pianissimo” that provide information about dynamics. And of course, there may be lyrics, written beneath the treble clef in piano music, or beneath an additional staff for a singer. A reader of music is integrating all these codes in real time as she plays, and of course a practiced musician can also read them silently—can play the music in her head.

In addition to the musical sign system, a reader of nineteenth-century sheet music encountered non-musical framing devices—the aforementioned bibliographic codes of its material presentation, which inevitably colored a musician’s interpretation. The title of the piece was usually placed at the top of the first page of music or on its own cover sheet. At the top of the first page, along with the title, the publisher may have provided information about the composer or the lyricist, the dedicatee, the version, or the history of the piece—the fact that it was performed at a special concert, for example—and may have engraved the title and additional information in plain type-like or ornamental script. When a piece of sheet music was nested inside a cover, the title and other source information may have been accompanied by decorative elements, such as an ornamental frame, or, as we have seen, a lithographic illustration. And the illustration, if there was one, might have portrayed the composer, a well-known performer, or a politician protagonist. Or, it might have set the mood of the piece through a depiction of its imagined setting or subject—a racist caricature of minstrel performers or Native American hunters, a landscape scene, or a ballroom vignette, for example. All of these ornamental devices would have inevitably affected the musician’s ideas about the music—if she should strive to make it merry, danceable, reverent, melancholy, or grand. Of course, some of these devices would have become familiar over time, so that a copperplate script, for example, might not have stood out as especially significant; nevertheless, they would still have lent visual value to the music.

Taken all together, the musical and bibliographic codes in sheet music present a sensory amalgam: the music is audible only insofar as it is visible and legible to its reader, and musical interpretation will depend on a particular performer’s sensitivity to visual cues, both denotative and connotative. The integrated sensorium required by sheet music counters the distinction sometimes made by readers of Dickinson’s poetry between visual and auditory elements. For Dickinson, a dedicated pianist in her girlhood, the music she heard most frequently during those years was that which she practiced—music she could only hear by interpreting visual signs. Under such circumstances, it would have been highly impractical to sever one sense from the other, as entirely separate and hierarchically related sources of meaning.

Given that Dickinson as a musician was accustomed to assimilating four or more musical data streams, and to reading these sign systems through the visual frameworks of script, decoration, and illustration, she could have felt the musical construction of a conventional poem to be, in fact, strangely impoverished, with its reduction of the number of musical data streams to just two: the beat of the line and the sound of words.

Seen in this light, some of her fundamental decisions might appear to us in new ways. Common meter, so often employed in her poetry—the rhythm common to both sacred hymn and secular ballad—arguably compresses two musical roles into one, functioning not just as rhythm but as harmony: it can serve as a poem’s double bass. Against the predictable chords of meter, the melody of the words becomes more conspicuous.

What Dickinson lost in rhythmic variation, by engaging just a few metrical patterns, she might have felt to be offset by gains in harmonic variation, because slight alterations in the beat became available as vehicles of meaning and melodic prominence. In “When Roses cease to bloom, Sir,” for example, the consistent rhythm of the first three iambs tapers off into a lone downbeat; think how easy it would have been for Dickinson to add a syllable before “Sir”—“dear Sir” perhaps?—to give the line eight beats. Instead, with seven beats, the word “Sir” absorbs the time of the “missing” beat and is thus more emphatic. The whole line, which might have been jaunty, becomes serious.

When Roses cease to bloom, Sir,
 –x –x –x – (7)
And violets are done –  
–x – – –x (6)
When bumblebees in solemn flight
–x –x –x – – (8)
Have passed beyond the Sun –
–x –x –x (6)
The hand that paused to gather
–x –x –x –(7)
Opon this Summer’s day
–x –x –x (6)
Will idle lie – in Auburn –
–x –x –x – (7)
Then take my flowers – pray!
x– –x –x (6)

Throughout the poem, similar small shifts keep us a bit off guard, as rhythm intertwines with meaning. In “And violets are done,” we have to downgrade the first syllable of “violets” from a strong iamb to something softer if we don’t want to sound robotic, and we have to give “done” more heft. The fifth and seventh lines are made to metrically match the first, which gives line three—the only line with all of the eight beats dictated by the meter—a special fullness that prolongs the flight of the bumblebees. The final line reverses the standard emphasis in the first iamb, turning it into a trochee, so that both “Then” and “pray” get the forceful pronunciation they deserve, in keeping with the temporality of the speaker’s argument (“then”) and her position, which is both deferential and declarative (“pray!”). The entire metrical effect, thus de-regularized, is more like regular speech—more like the monologue it purports to record. Although the mood of the poem differs dramatically from that of “The Last Rose of Summer,” and Dickinson uses the iambic DNA of ballad meter rather than the predominantly anapestic structure of Moore’s song, the metrical architecture of her poem relies like his on the shortening of the eight-beat line to seven.

‘Tis the last rose of summer,
– – x – – x – (7)
Left bloomin alone;
–x – – x (5)
All her lovely companions
– – x – – x – (7)
Are faded and gone;
–x – – x (5)
No flow’r of her kindred,
– x – – x – (6)
No rosebud is nigh,
– x – – x  (5)
To reflect back her blushes,
– – x – – x – (7)
Or give sigh for sigh!
–x – – x (5)

With some judicious elisions and the accelerated pacing of some syllables, Dickinson’s poem can be sung to Moore’s tune. It sounds silly at first; but the extra resonance that the tune gives to lines five and six, where the melody differs and the notes are drawn out, is in keeping with the crux of Dickinson’s “paused to gather,” inviting us to contemplate the act of flower-picking. More importantly, like Moore and all adept manipulators of common meter, Dickinson already, in this early poem, devises “occasional breaches of the laws of rhythm” to make the time “wait upon the feeling,” as Moore recommended.

In parlor songs and other simple strophic musical genres, the prevalent four or eight-measure phrase is often repeated; these phrases thus “rhyme” the rhythm. Likewise, end rhymes in Dickinson’s standard a-b-a-b and a-b-c-b schemes provide an almost rhythmic cadence, as well as tone and timbre. Reinforcing her standard meter with her standard rhyme schemes offered Dickinson a constant against which she could more effectively pitch the other sound techniques at her disposal as a poet—off-rhymes, alliteration, consonance—as well as non-musical tactics like image and color words, connotation and reference, and dramatic action. In other words, Dickinson’s choice to use very simple and standard meter and rhyme structures allowed her to deploy, and make more perceptible, the kinds of variations she seems to have preferred as a musician, given their prevalence in her volume. These effects have been well documented in Dickinson’s poetry, but a good example among the fourteen “Rose” poems is offered by “I keep my pledge” (Fr63), rearranged into its common meter lines.

I keep my pledge. I was not called —          a
Death did not notice me.         b
I bring my Rose. I plight again,         c
By every sainted Bee —         b

By Daisy called from hillside —         d
by Bobolink from lane.         [c]
Blossom and I — Her oath, and mine —         [d][d]
Will surely come again.          c

Here, the expected pattern of the “first stanza” is given a twist in the “second.” Dickinson reuses the “a” sound of “again,” which is not an end rhyme in the first stanza, in the second stanza, where even the very word is repeated. But there are additional rhymes in the second stanza: the long “i” of hillside is repeated in “I” and “mine.” While “hillside,” “I,” and “mine” do not exactly rhyme, the latter two words offer a rhyme in meaning—since “mine” is the possessive form of “I”—that overlays their sounds.  Adding “hillside” into this sound mix suggests a kind of “lexical collocation,” such that the “hillside” of the Daisy, a flower with which Dickinson identified, is brought into the “semantic network” of the identity words (Hallen, 31). The surprising density of rhyming and almost rhyming sounds in the second half of the poem, leveraged against the rhyme regularity of the first half, is emphasized by Dickinson’s lineation of the poem in fascicle 2, with the line breaks in the middle of what would be the third line of each stanza. These additional line breaks visually emphasize the repetition of “I” as an initial word and the sound alignment of “I” and “mine.”

Significantly, this coherence of sound grounds what is otherwise a very airy poem, with characters and action that are hard to “see.” None of the sophisticated sound weaving of the second half of the poem would be as audible in a poem with an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, nor would it in a poem written in blank verse.

While these sound effects might be discernible to a reader who did not know their relationship to Dickinson’s music, the musical model makes it clear that Dickinson was not just an acoustic eccentric but a brilliant formal engineer, translating techniques from one art to another. At the same time, by allowing us greater access to her lived soundscape, her sheet music simplifies certain tortured questions about her poetic aims. We don’t have to accommodate her entire experiment with common meter to the hymns of Isaac Watts, or to see it as a subtle subversion of Watts—with all the religious arguments that must then be carried along with either accommodation or subversion. Rather, Dickinson’s sound techniques can be understood as ingenious adaptations of artistic examples she was already employing as a musician. Just as the instrumental sheet music version of “The Last Rose of Summer” invokes “missing” lyrics that she knew from other sources, her poetic responses, flipping the paradigm, invoke “missing” music—or rather, provide notation-less music through a resourceful use of language in all of its capacities: a sign system that deploys both sight and sound, in the sensorium of real space-time and in purely imaginary scenes and associations.

The musical notation within sheet music, as a data visualization that could be silently or actually activated as sound, had also to be read by a musician within the sensory context of its particular materiality: its cover illustration or other ornamental features, to be apprehended again by sight, and its physical structure, as a set of folded sheets of paper that a musician had to learn to touch and turn with digital dexterity, while simultaneously using many other parts of her body—throat, mouth, lungs, larynx, diaphragm, nasal passages, abdominal muscles, hands, feet, and ears—to sing and play her instrument.

Moreover, as a gathering of disparate sheets of paper, the sheet music volume offers new information about how Dickinson might have conceived of the materiality of her sewn fascicles. Mass-produced books in the nineteenth century, like the majority of books in the Dickinson family library, contained pages that had been printed together on a single sheet that was then folded into a signature; signatures were nested to form quires, stacked on top of each other, sewn together, and trimmed. Even Dickinson’s herbarium, a codex in her possession that, like her sheet music, speaks to personal accumulation and gradual creation, was bound in this way—it was purchased as a blank, bound volume that she then populated with samples. The sheet music volume, in contrast, is not a purpose-made codex; it is a gathering of dozens of sheets of music issued originally as individual folded folios or folded folios with additional half-sheets or folios nested inside. The volume was formed when each composition was tipped into a casing structure equipped with paper tabs. But these differences in binding methods are not obvious. Like most book owners, Dickinson probably knew only that books were composed of sets of pages sewn together. The transformation in about 1852 of her music collection, from a stack of folded sheets into a neatly bound book, must have been quite impressive. It is quite possible that this book that she generated as a collector was the only book she had ever seen in an unbound state. It seems likely, then, that this example would have been present in her mind as she constructed and stitched the fascicles.

Finally, Dickinson’s volume of sheet music illuminates her strategy of rearrangement, rather than absolute rejection, of the traditional milestones of the mid nineteenth-century feminine lifespan. She avoided marriage, but the “master letters” and certain poems chart her experience of passion; she bypassed motherhood, but was a caregiver to her parents, nephews, and niece. Likewise, her musical career follows a chronology with some surprising parallels to that of her more gender-obedient peers, although ultimately it diverges from the usual path. Adolescent girls and young women were supposed to accrue accomplishments like musicianship to abet courtship and matrimony; for many young women, marriage was not just the symbolic goal of musical training, but also its practical end-point, as child-rearing and household management encroached upon the time and psychic freedom needed for practice and improvement. Dickinson did not face those particular encumbrances. Nevertheless, the density of pieces in her volume from the 1840s, its binding in about 1852, and the down-sizing of her musical vocabulary in later letters and poems suggest that, for Dickinson too, a period of intensive playing and collecting that began and peaked in her teens subsided in her twenties. In other words, like other white, middle-class, piano-playing young women, Dickinson seems to have “graduated” into a new, adult role. The diminution of her musical practice might mark a transition equivalent in the shape of its arc but unusual in its substance: from the musical infatuation of girlhood to the life of a working poet, from the domestic theater of the familial parlor to the private drama of the bedroom desk, and from the reproduction on her piano of music read from paper scripts to the fertile, original production of musical poetry on paper.

Even after she abandoned the active collecting of sheet music, and even after she moved on from the poetic grounds of “last roses,” Dickinson remained attentive to the genuine appeal of Moore’s song. In the late 1869 letter to her cousin “Loo” in which she cites “The Last Rose of Summer” by name, Dickinson enclosed a rose-bud picked up from the ground, a final, fallen souvenir of bloom-time. And yet the letter contains no hint of the “mawkishness” that later critics would affix to sentimentality, with “The Last Rose of Summer” as the degraded standard-bearer of its repetitive themes and monotonous emotions. Certainly, in response to Louisa’s inquires, Dickinson stirs up sweetness and wistfulness by citing specific features of home: the kitchen, the garden, her mother, Dick the horse, Tabby the cat, the familiar domestic employees, Irish and Black, that Louisa remembers from past visits. These are the stock ingredients of the parlor song and the minstrel song, indeed. But Dickinson’s roll call of friendly spaces, scenes, and characters is anything but a routine litany. Since her method can only be appreciated in the original, I cite it at length:

… It was sweet and antique as birds to hear Loo’s voice, worth the lying awake from five o’clock summer mornings to hear... Do you wish you heard “A[ustin] talk”? Then I would you did, for then you would be here always, a sweet premium. Would you like to “step in the kitchen”? Then you shall by faith, which is the first sight. Mr. C[hurch] is not in the tree, because the rooks won't let him, but I ate a pear as pink as a plum that he made last spring, when he was ogling you. Mother has on the petticoat you so gallantly gathered while he sighed and grafted.
Tabby is eating a stone dinner from a stone plate, ... Tim is washing Dick’s feet, and talking to him now and then in an intimate way. Poor fellow, how he warmed when I gave him your message! The red reached clear to his beard, he was so gratified; and Maggie stood as still for hers as a puss for patting. The hearts of these poor people lie so unconcealed you bare them with a smile.

Thank you for recollecting my weakness. I am not so well as to forget I was ever ill, but better and working. I suppose we must all “ail till evening.”

Read Mr. Lowell's Winter. One does not often meet anything so perfect.
In many little corners how much of Loo I have.
Maggie “dragged” the garden for this bud for you. You have heard of the “last rose of summer.” This is that rose’s son.
Into the little port you cannot sail unwelcome at any hour of day or night. (L 337, 2:465-466)

With tenderness, humor, a bit of melancholy, a bit of joy, and an ease with both “high” and “low” cultural registers, the letter is a performance that incorporates the recipient as a participant, for whom sounds, sights, feelings, memories, and shared references are summoned and conjoined—much like an Irish melody by Thomas Moore.[41]

Given the vivid light that her sheet music collection throws upon Dickinson’s reading of poetry, her understanding of poetry, and even her own poetics, why has it been so generally neglected? But, of course, we know the answer. In addition to disciplinary demarcations of territory that have disconnected “lyrics” from “poetry” and the erstwhile inattention to popular culture by both literary scholars and musicologists, sheet music has suffered from the entrenched bias against any “femininized” genre or media form. Recent re-assessments of nineteenth-century U.S. literature have revealed how prejudices related to gender, class, and race were frequently discharged through the technological, economic, and social mechanisms of printing and publication; how these apparently neutral operations foreclosed, stifled, and effaced certain cultural products; and how what did make it into the archive was consciously sculpted into fixed literary values and national canons by later generations of critics.[42]

Perhaps more importantly, Dickinson’s volume of sheet music, with its sweet airs, patriotic marches, lively dances, parlor songs, and minstrel songs, contradicts the personality we think we know—the “Myth” that, even as she is laid to rest over and over again, is revived by our love. Only that prophetic, eccentric, reclusive, and distinctively American poet, it seems, could have produced those cherished works. How could anything as sociable, genteel, transatlantic, and commonplace as “The Last Rose of Summer” have been meaningful to such a one? Can we admit to our imaginations a scene in which Dickinson as a talented teen-age pianist entertains in the family parlor? But it was, and we should. For, contrary to what we might expect, this popular song nourished at least one of the roots of her rare gift.




My thanks to Marta Werner and Susan Forscher Weiss for their generous feedback on this essay, and to my hosts at Eastern Illinois University and to participants in a 2015 Nineteenth-Century Studies Association conference session on “Musical Materiality” for early encouragement.

[1] See Letters, #9, 1:24, ed. Johnson and Ward. Subsequent references to this edition will be cited parenthetically by letter number, volume, and page. Poems will be cited parenthetically by the number assigned to them in Poems, ed. Franklin.

[2] It’s not clear that music was part of the instructional program at Amherst Academy but the Amherst Academy Exhibition Program for August 10, 1847 shows “music” listed five times, and other programs from the years 1820 through 1849 are similarly constructed. Since the program included addresses, declamations, orations, and dramatic performances by students, it seems possible that students would also have participated in the musical interludes at these exercises. See Amherst Academy Exhibition Programs. Dickinson also mentions piano practice at home during the terms she did not attend school. On Dickinson’s education at Amherst Academy, see Habegger, 139-166. “Aunt Selby” was “Ann Elizabeth Vaill Selby, a niece of Stepgrandmother Norcross, [who] spent the summer of 1845” with the Dickinson family on what is now North Pleasant Street, then called Pleasant Street (Harbeson), although others have called it North Street (Bingham, 61, n. 1) and West Street (Habegger, 129). On Dickinson’s musical education, see also Andrews, Cooley, 10-11; Lowenberg, Musicians, xviii-xxi, 125-128, and 133; and Strovas, 607.

[3] The piano was acquired by August 3, when Emily mentioned it in a letter to Abiah Root (L 7, 1:16); see also her letter of May 7, as she anticipates its arrival (L 6, 1:12-13). Leyda dates the possible purchase of the piano to 1844, via Edward Dickinson’s brother Samuel, of Worcester, who was to acquire it in Boston. But it seems the piano did not arrive for another year. If the piano was purchased in Worcester instead, much closer to Amherst than Boston, the source would probably have been the firm of Stephen Marsh and Levi Liscom; other pre-1850 keyboard instrument producers in Worcester seem to have sold seraphines and melodeons, not pianos. See Rice, 47. The Hallet and Davis piano in the Dickinson artifact collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, contains a patent date on its bridge of September 23, 1851, so it cannot be the one Dickinson first played in 1845. See “Pianoforte; Renaissance Revival square piano.” But in all likelihood, the Pleasant Street piano was a square piano much like the one at the Houghton Library, perhaps also of rosewood, as that was the preference Edward Dickinson stated in a letter of June 1844 (Leyda, 1:86-87).

[4] Books in the family library help describe this shift. The Dickinsons possessed Isaac Watts’s Psalms Carefully Suited to the Christian Worship..., bound with his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, belonging to Emily Norcross Dickinson, and Samuel Worcester’s The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of the Rev. Isaac Watts (Capps, 187) as well as his Christian Psalmody in Four Parts..., both belonging to Edward Dickinson. None of these contained musical notation; singers were expected to apply the lyrics to familiar religious tunes. Along these lines, Emily Dickinson would have encountered at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Asahel Nettleton's Village Hymns for Social Worship and Church Psalmody by Lowell Mason and David Greene. But Dickinson also would have been used two tunebooks containing musical notation and edited by Lowell Mason, Carmina Sacra, which included a musical glossary and vocal exercises, and The Vocalist, containing 112 four-part secular songs, a selection “chiefly made from German authors,—the words being either a free translation, or written in imitation of the original” (Mason, 1847, i). See Lowenberg, Textbooks, 71-73, 77. Her musical education prepared Emily to extend her personal repertoire beyond well-known religious tunes. See also Hitchcock, 1-16, and Tawa, High-Minded and Low-Down, 210-30.

[5] On the nature and readability of “bibliographic codes,” see McGann, 56.

[6] See Boziwick’s two essays, “Emily Dickinson’s Music Book” and “‘My Business Is to Sing,’” and two blog posts, “Emily Dickinson’s Music Book (EDR 469)” and “Finding a Life.” Beyond Boziwick, the most extensive investigations are found in Cooley, 13-18, who looks primarily at the types of music in Dickinson’s album and its difficulty, and Runzo, 218-22, who focuses mostly on blackface minstrelsy under the heading “popular culture.” Dickinson’s sheet music is briefly mentioned in Small, 50, Jackson, 120, and Miller, 52-54, 120; Miller also considers more extensively the way song structures, secular and religious, infiltrated Dickinson’s poetics, 49-81. Lowenberg inventories the volume, 119-124. There are short articles in a few of the many Dickinson encyclopedias, companions, and guidebooks—eg, Balteff and Strovas—but music is missing from others, such as Letter, Smith and Loeffelholz, eds., and Grahber, Hagenbüchle, and Miller, eds.

[7] See, for example, Davidson, England, Lease, Morgan, and Wolofsky.

[8] Tawa, Sweet Songs, 105; Krummel, 16. As Krummel notes, the actual number of published titles is unknown since it has never been properly counted (15). See also Epstein.

[9] However, even some forms of religious music have also been neglected. Stokes notes, for example, that “[d]espite its prominence in nineteenth-century American culture”—and despite its many interactions with the “literary mainstream”—“hymnody has remained unintegrated in scholarly considerations of nineteenth-century American poetry,” possibly because of its “female gendering” as a form (360). Examinations of literature and music, especially in relation to women writers, include, for example, Alexander, Gray, Hagan and Wells, eds., Helsinger, and Sousa Correa. Scholarly analyses of popular culture also tend to stay within a single discipline. For example, Rubin does not discuss music, despite her detailed exploration of the public use and cultural presence of verse in the late nineteenth century through the mid twentieth century; Scott does not discuss popular literature, despite the co-eval development of musical and literary professionalization via popular forms in the nineteenth century. These are excellent books and my point is not that all works of scholarship in each discipline should cross-reference the other but to illustrate a dominant pattern in which popular music and literature are usually seen as mutually exclusive domains. Two exceptions are Cohen and Hagan and Wells, eds. On the dissemination of popular music in other printed forms, see Watt, Scott, and Spedding, eds.

[10] Following Hunt, I will refer to this song generally as “The Last Rose of Summer,” as it was usually known in later editions and versions, except where discussing the specific composition by Moore.

[11] The letter to Abiah Root is L 23, 1:66. Leyda refers to Austin’s copy with passages marked by Emily, 1:161; Miller notes she has been unable to locate this volume, 237, note 11.

[12] “Thomas Moore,” Harper's 1850, “Thomas Moore,” Harper’s 1851, and “Table-Talk about Thomas Moore,” Harper’s 1853.

[13] Robert Burns, associated with three pieces, is the only other lyricist who is represented more than twice in her volume. Sixteen pieces in all are associated with British lyricists, and nine with Americans. This network of lyricists and their treatment in publication is examined at greater length in the longer project of which this essay forms a part.

[14] Some examples recorded in WorldCat—a very incomplete inventory, given that most pieces of sheet music are not individually catalogued—include Mine, “The Last Rose of Summer”; Moore, “Believe Me,” [1812] and “Believe Me,” [1820]; Stevenson, “Farewell!,” “Fly Not Yet,” “Has Sorrow,” “The Minstrel Boy,” “My Gentle Harp,” and “Tis the Last Rose of Summer”; and Stevenson and Moore, “The Harp That Once” and “Tho’ the Last Glimpse of Erin.” Songster publications of the Irish Melodies abound. See, for example, Moore, Irish Melodies, Sacred Melodies, and Other Poems; Irish Melodies and Sacred Songs; Irish Melodies, Songs, and Sacred Songs; and Melodies, Songs, Sacred Songs, and National Airs.

[15] Byron is quoted in Kelly, 109; see also Kelly, 78 and Alexander, 245. On Moore’s transatlantic appeal, see J. Moore.

[16] The “illustrated Moore” became an industry unto itself, with many reprints and imitations of the volume with the Maclise illustrations.

[17] This 1865 edition is apparently a reprint of an edition by the same publisher in 1843.

[18] It is beyond my scope here to trace the pedigree of sympathy and its deployment in British and German Romanticism, but certainly the idea of sympathy in the early to mid nineteenth century, as Moore and his listeners would have encountered it, was indebted to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and the concept of Einfühlung in the philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder. See, for example, Nori, Nowak, and Roberts.

[19] On the frequent adaptation of the song-poem, see Klein and Klein, ed.

[20] Klein has identified 205 “utilisations” of the theme and/or text of “The Last Rose of Summer” and/or tune “The Groves of Blarney” by European composers up to the first World War. See Klein, ed. Although its popularity diminished in the twentieth century, the song continued and continues to be recorded and referenced across a variety of idioms. For example, Nina Simone covered the song on her 1964 album Broadway-Blues-Ballads and Kanye West referred to it in his 2013 song “Blood on the Leaves.” See “The Last Rose of Summer.”

[21] On the many loopholes within and evasions of copyright in the music publishing business in the first half of the nineteenth century, see Sanjek, 25-34.

[22] On the problem of Moore’s originality, see Paterson. On sentimentality, see Wilkie.

[23] Brief examinations of the song’s themes, origins, and music are in Hunt, Sources and Style, 24-26 and 49-51, Scott, 27-28 and Tessier, 45.

[24] This summary of the folk-tale appeared in a book review of “Finden’s Beauties of Moore,” in 1845. My thanks to The Traditional Tune Archive’s “Little Harvest Rose (The): Annotation” for pointing to this source.

[25] See Touw.

[26] Hunt, Sources and Style, 25; George-Denis Zimmerman, Songs of Irish Rebellion, Political Street Ballads and Rebel Songs 1780-1900 (Ashgate, 2007), qtd. in Hunt, Sources and Style, 25.

[27] Burns’s poem was published in the second volume of A Selection of Scots Songs with music by Pietro Urbani, accompanied by an original “Scots Tune,” and then to a series of different airs in later publications. Lyrics here are from Kinsley, ed., #453, 735.

[28] See Tessier, 24-29, for a detailed description of Moore’s process.

[29] Bryan and Moore might have become friendly as early as 1808. Additionally, Bryan hosted a dinner at Jenkinstown in 1810 for the Prince of Wales’ birthday, and Moore, who was present, wrote for the occasion “The Prince’s Day”/“Though Dark are our Sorrows,” a song to mark a propitious moment in Irish-English relations through which he hoped to improve those relations. See Brady.

[30] Grobman, following Leach, claims that Moore “does not use a-b-c-b at all,” although it is the “most traditional ballad rhyming pattern,” and instead uses a-b-a-b most often and a-a-b-b occasionally (Grobman, 111). It is a strange oversight, given that two of Moore’s most popular songs—“’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” and “Oft in the Stilly Night”—do not obey this rule. So, while the a-b-c-b rhyme scheme is not typical of Moore’s other Irish Melodies, it is very much in line with traditional balladry.

[31] On the origin of the tune, see “Carolan, the Last of the Bards,” in an 1885 issue of The Musical Times and an 1889 letter to the editor of the same publication regarding that attribution; “New Lights upon Old Tunes”; ní Chinnéide; Paterson; and Hunt, Sources and Style. Hunt notes that it is more or less impossible to identify precisely the historical origins of the Irish airs that Moore drew on; what’s important is that he believed them to be traditional, as did late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century antiquarians and composers (“Harper’s Legacy,” 4-7).

[32] On the alterations Moore made throughout the Irish Melodies, see Hunt, Sources and Style, 108-34.

[33] See Tawa, Music for the Millions, on the significance of shared emotion in sentimental music of the antebellum period, 37-46, and in Sweet Songs, on the primacy of “affection, either love that is usually tender and sometimes passionate… or devotion to parents, siblings, children and friends, or attachment to an inanimate object associated with one or more loved persons” (123), and Finson on the genteel fashion of representing courtship, 12-42.


first line Position in fascicles or sets Franklin # in 1998 Johnson # in 1955 Franklin date
The Gentian weaves her fringes F01.01.001 21 18 1858
Frequently the woods are pink - F01.01.004 24 6 1858
Distrustful of the Gentian F01.01.006 26 20 1858
To lose if one can find again F01.01.010 30 22 1858
To him who keeps an orchis' heart F01.01.011 31 22 1858
She slept beneath a tree F01.02.015 15 25 1858
So has a Daisy vanished F01.03.019 19 28 1858
If those I loved were lost F01.03.020 20 29 1858
If recollecting were forgetting F01.04.024 9 33 1858/59
When I count the seeds F02.02.008 51 40 1859
One Sister have I in our house F02.02.011 5 14 1858/59
I robbed the Woods F02.04.016 57 41 1859/61
Within my reach! F03.01.003 69 90 1859
Angels, in the early morning F03.02.007 73 94 1859
My nosegays are for Captives F03.02.008 74 95 1859
The rainbow never tells me F03.02.010 76 97 1859
New feet within my garden go F03.02.013 79 99 1859
I hide myself within my flower F03.02.014* 80 903 1859/63/64
I haven't told my garden yet F03.03.017 40 50 1858
I often passed the village F03.03.018 41 51 1858
If I should die F03.04.023 36 54 1858
By Chivalries as tiny F03.04.024 37 55 1858
Perhaps you'd like to buy a flower F04.01.001 92 134 1859
Have you got a Brook in your little heart F04.01.003 94 136 1859
Flowers — Well — if anybody F04.01.004 95 137 1859
Whose are the little beds, I asked F04.03.010 85 142 1859
They have not chosen me, he said F04.03.012 87 85 1859
She bore it till the simple veins F04.04.013 81 144 1859
We should not mind so small a flower F04.04.014 82 81 1859
I had some things that I called mine F05.02.012 101 116 1859
Glowing is her Bonnet F05.04.022 106 72 1859
In lands I never saw — they say F05.04.024 108 124 1859
So from the mould F05.01.001 110 66 1859
Arcturus is his other name F05.03.015 117 70 1859
Besides the Autumn poets sing F06.03.011 123 131 1859

Table of Dickinson poems from the years 1858 through 1860 that contain references to flowers other than roses. Data from “List of Emily Dickinson poems” and Poems.


first line Position in fascicles or sets Franklin # in 1998 Johnson # in 1955 Franklin date
I have a Bird in spring letter 4 5 1854
Baffled for just a day or two F02.05.025 66 17 1859
Went up a year this evening! F03.01.006 72 93 1859
Artists wrestled here! F05.01.002 111 110 1859
A science — so the Savants say F07.01.003 147 100 1860
If I could bribe them by a Rose F08.05.019 176 179 1860
No Rose, yet felt myself a'bloom master letter 190   1861
What would I give to see his face? F11.07.015 266 247 1861
Would you like summer? Taste of ours. letter 272 691 1862
The Soul has Bandaged moments F17.06.014 360 512 1862
I tend my flowers for thee F18.02.006 367 339 1862
Within my Garden, rides a Bird F18.04.009 370 500 1862
It will be Summer — eventually. F18.06.014 374 342 1862
God made a little Gentian F24.04.015 520 442 1863
Forget! The lady with the Amulet F29.05.016 625 438 1863
He parts Himself — like Leaves F30.01.003 655 517 1863
Essential Oils — are wrung F34.06.018 772 675 1863
What shall I do when the Summer troubles S05.05.020 915 956 1865
The Bird must sing to earn the Crumb S05.09.037 928 880 1865
There is a June when Corn is cut S06c.01.002 811 930 1864/65
Partake as doth the Bee S07.13.064 806 994 1864/65
She sped as Petals of a Rose   897 991 1865
A full fed Rose on meals of Tint   1141 1154 1867
A Bee his burnished Carriage S13.01.002 1351 1339 1874
Crisis is sweet and yet the Heart   1365 1416 1875
Winter is good — his Hoar Delights S14.01.003 1374 1316 1875
Go not too near a House of Rose   1479 1434 1878
Where Roses would not dare to go   1610 1582 1883


Table of additional poems that contain references to roses. Data from “List of Emily Dickinson poems” and Poems.

[36] The traditional association of anemones with spring derives not just from the bloom-time of many common varieties in Europe and North America, but from the Greek myth of the deity Anemone, her love for Zephyr, god of the wind, and her punishment at the hands of Chloris, goddess of flowers. In different versions of the Greek myth about the death of Apollo, drops of his blood turn into anemones or Aphrodite’s tears for her lover turn into anemones.

[37] On the rose that accompanied this poem, see Poems, #11, note, 1:67.

[38] Another rose poem that Dickinson sent to an intimate accompanied by an actual flower is “The morns are meeker than they were - ” (Fr32), which she sent to Susan Dickinson in the autumn of 1858, approximately. See Poems, #32, note, 1: 85. This poem, by invoking the autumnal disappearance of the rose—“The Rose is out of town”—among other signs of fall, e.g., “The nuts are getting brown,” points to “The Last Rose of Summer” as a poem of seasonal change, minus the tragedy. The last line, “I’ll put a trinket on,” suggests that the poem’s speaker is actually Sue, who will wear the flower that Dickinson sends.

Dickinson would have been quite familiar with the traditional meanings of flower gifts from the textbook she used at Mount Holyoke, Almira Lincoln Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany; Lowenberg, in Textbooks, identifies the edition in question as the seventh, of 1838 (70). Familiar Lectures included, in this edition and many others (it was frequently reprinted), an appendix on the “Symbolical Language of Flowers” (171-74), adapted from well-known sources, with interpretations of the meanings of several rose types, including “Rose, white, withered” and “Rose, wild”—the latter of which meant, “Simplicity. Let not your unsophisticated heart be corrupted by intercourse with the world” (173).

[39] See also Farrell, 99-116, on the history of the garden cemetery movement.

[40] The other quotation here, “time and sense,” may come from the hymn “From Every Stormy Wind That Blows” by Hugh Stowell, published in The Winter's Wreath, a Collection of Original Contributions in Prose and Verse (London and Liverpool, 1828) and subsequently in over a thousand hymnals. The hymn contains these words: “There is a spot where spirits blend, / where friend holds fellowship with friend, / tho’ sundered far; by faith they meet / around the common mercy seat… There, there on eagle wings we soar / and time and sense seem all no more, / and heav’n comes down our souls to greet, / and glory crowns the mercy seat…”

[41] On the laborers and servants in the Dickinson household, see Mitchell and Murray. Dickinson’s “ails till evening” is a reference to Robert Browning’s Sordello, and specifically an unnamed flower with “a three-leaved bell / Which whitens at the heart ere noon, and ails / Till evening.” This flower might be a lily. See Britten. “Mr. Lowell’s Winter” is identified by Johnson as James Russell Lowell’s “A Good Word for Winter,” an essay published in the Atlantic Almanac for 1870 (note to L337 2:466). A less likely candidate, although closer in sentiment to Dickinson’s network of references here, is the Lowell poem “Winter,” published for the first time in 1844 in the short-lived, social reformist, literary journal The Present, edited by William Henry Channing, which begins,

The bird sings not in winter-time,

  Nor doth the happy murmur of the bees,

Swarm round us from the chill, unleav’d lime,

And shall ye hear the poet o’sunny rhyme,

  Mid souls more bleak and bare than winter trees?

Yet another candidate for “Winter” is Lowell’s “Winter Piece” from Kirkland, 291-92. This anthology, if she had had access to it, Dickinson surely would have found congenial during her “last rose” period. It includes “The Rosebud” by John Keble, “The Little Red Rose” by Goethe, “Go, Lovely Rose” by Edmund Waller, “White Roses” by Sarah Louisa P. Smith, “The City Rose to the Wild Rose” by Sarah Roberts, “Roses” by Leigh Hunt, and “A Dead Rose” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among other rose poems.

[42] Recent studies of this nature include Cohen on “balladmongering,” 17-59; DeLombard; Jackson on the “lyricization” of nineteenth-century poetry; Loeffelholz; and Socarides.


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