Poetry Review: “How Many Flowers Fail in Wood” by Emily Dickinson

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

After a dry winter here in the North Country, April brought the kind of moisture we have been needing. Whether it was wet enough to off-set the dry autumn and winter, I do not know. But I do know that lawns are green again, and in the shady areas of the little woods behind our neighborhood the ground is rich brown and muddy again.

The old saying came to mind often during National Poetry Month, “April showers bring May flower.” And so for the month of May,MontanaWriter will be featuring poems about flowers… and a few photos I have taken over the years of flowers and plants.

Emily Dickinson wrote a number of poems about flowers, of course. There are many I could have picked to feature here. Yet since “How Many Flowers  is the one that came first to mind, I will post it here.

I must have first read this poem sometime in my late teens in an Introduction to English Literature class or an American Literature survey class as an undergrad. I suppose I may even have read it earlier in an English text book in high school. It is that familiar to me.

But maybe it is merely her poetry that is familiar to me, her voice. It is as familiar a poetic voice as exists in the English language. The best description of Dickinson’s voice I have read comes from John Barr, President of the Poetry Foundation:

Every great poet writes in a voice that is unmistakably his or hers. When we hear the high, tragic diction of Homer or Yeats, or the urgent but colloquial voice of Dante, who speaks to us in The Inferno as if we saw him on the street just yesterday, or the boisterous, almost overly familiar diction of Walt Whitman, we don’t need to know the poet’s name to know who it is speaking. Emily Dickson’s voice is equally unmistakable. We hear it as if it is coming from the next room. It is a contemporary voice—quiet, contemplative, but also passionate. In fact, the voice is slyly provocative. It never plays into our expectations; rather, it uses the unexpected as a principal conversational tactic. The rhymes are there so we know it’s a poem, but they are there sparingly. The rhythms are there, as well, but they are not mechanical, like a metronome. Her poems wear form, but they wear it lightly. They suffer form, but are not beholden to it. ~ John Barr

Barr is right. In English, only Yeats and Whitman (and Frost, perhaps) are as instantly identifiable to our ears as Dickinson… and but neither Yeats nor Whitman is truly  beloved. They are admired, revered, respected, worshipped, studied… but not beloved. Only Frost, I think, is in the same category of Dickinson as being both instantly familiar and beloved.

Dickinson does the small poem better than anyone in English. It is a kind of American haiku. It is language and image and meaning and rhythm as compressed as they can be compressed.

On the first day of May, Dickinson seems like just the thing.



How Many Flowers Fail in Wood
How many Flowers fail in Wood —
Or perish from the Hill —
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful —

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze —
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight —
It bear to Other Eyes —


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

How many Flowers fail in Wood —
Or perish from the Hill —
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful —


As is always the case with a small poem, it is difficult to pick just a few lines to highlight. Yet I choose this first stanza for its familiarity, its tonal-definition, and its beauty. They are quintessential Dickinson lines: the alliteration of “flowers” and “fail”, and “that” and “they”; the vowel pairings of “how” and “flower”, and  ”fail” and “hill”; the complimentarianism of “perish” and “privilege”. All of that culminating in what seems to me to be the most Dickinsonian of all words, “Beautiful.”

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