Emily Dickinson: "The Queen of Calvary"

'Our not unthinking Drums'

When I first read this poem I was enchanted by its simplicity. This occurred during a university lecture in which the professor dissected this poem in detail with allusions to its inner meaning. She couched it in dark, psycho/ religio/ femino undertones. My thoughts were quite otherwise in that Lewis Carroll's "Alice" came to mind. After the lecture I accosted the professor and expressed my alternative view. Her reply was that "One might get that interpretation." Having thought about "that interpretation" I, too, would like to salute Emily by offering it here (while beating my NOT unthinking Drum).

This is a poem of childhood and innocence. We are in the make-believe world of a child at play. The girl is perhaps eight years old and a kind of "Alice in Wonderland" figure. In other words, she is absolutely normal! The poem may have autobiographical connotations - I certainly hope so! Does Emily Dickinson as a mature woman recall her childhood? Though couched in the expressive words of an accomplished poet her story is told through the eyes and mind of a child.

Her home has a fine garden where she plays, often alone, but never lonely. The creatures of the garden are her friends and "playmates" and these are the things the poem tells us me. Just beyond the garden are the woods. It is unlikely she has ever been into the woods and she would have been warned not to wander there. On one of her earlier ventures into the garden she was confronted by a Robin whistling shrilly on a nearby branch. Perhaps the Robin had its nest in the garden and whistled an ear-piercing warning to drive her away. She hears the Robin often enough, though, that she grows accustomed to it but does she sometimes cover her ears?

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I'm some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though —

I thought if I could only live
Till that first Shout got by —
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me —

Does the Robin make far more noise than the more-distant sounds coming from the woods? To describe woodland noises as "Pianos in the Woods" has a child-like simplicity. Assume she is being taught the piano and making a mess of it. Her piano tutor might well say that she has "mangled" everything. She then hears the mixture of strange sounds emanating from the woods, a place outside the bounds of her experience, and is unaware that the sounds are animal and bird calls. Might she not link those sounds to her musical experiences and ascribe the cacophany to pianos hidden in the woods? Those "mangled" noises, though, are as nothing compared to the Robin's "shouts".

Children love bright colors and she notices that her plain drab dress is not as pretty as the Daffodils. The Daffodils, Grass, Blossums are "humanised" or, at least, she endows them and other creatures with the capacity to do things that she might do. She does not like the bees and wishes them to stay away. Has she been stung? And those "dim countries" where they go — are those countries deep in the dim woods?

I dared not meet the Daffodils —
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own —

I wished the Grass would hurry —
So — when 'twas time to see —
He'd he too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch — to look at me —

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they'd stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

Young children used to be given mementos when attending Sunday-school. Often it would be a coloured postcard of a Biblical story or character with a prayer or appropriate verse appended. Children collected these cards and used them to assist learning the stories they had been told. Perhaps our little girl has a postcard depicting the Virgin Mary and uses it to invent a religious game with a tiny procession using the postcard as a centre-piece. She is the focus of her game, or rather, the character she portrays, the Queen of Calvary. She imagines her garden friends marching past while she stands in for the Virgin and acknowledges their revering salutes by doffing her bonnet. It seems nothing more serious than a delightful child's game. One can imagine that when asleep she might dream of her garden-friends and her toys coming to life just as one sees depicted in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet.

They're here, though; not a creature failed —
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me
The Queen of Calvary —

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums —

Have I over-romanticised the possibilities? I don't think so. The poem is of childhood innocence and make-belief. When read aloud, as a child might read it, the mood and feel of the poem becomes apparent and tends to make one recall the innocence of their own childhood.

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