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Emily Dickinson's "Nature-the Gentlest Mother is"

Updated on April 14, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Nature-the Gentlest Mother is"

Emily Dickinson was the quintessential nature-lover. Her keen observation along with her study of science allowed her to make remarkable artistic statements about the functioning of natural events. That she found Mother Nature to be nurturing, caring, softly disciplining force comports with her deep love for all natural creatures of both plant and animal kingdoms.

Contrasting with Emily's riddle-poems, this one quite explicitly names the focus of her drama. She then moves on to reveal marvelously how closely she observed and how skillfully she was capable of reporting her observations.

Nature — the Gentlest Mother is

Nature — the Gentlest Mother is,
Impatient of no Child —
The feeblest — or the waywardest —
Her Admonition mild —

In Forest — and the Hill —
By Traveller — be heard —
Restraining Rampant Squirrel —
Or too impetuous Bird —

How fair Her Conversation —
A Summer Afternoon —
Her Household — Her Assembly —
And when the Sun go down —

Her Voice among the Aisles
Incite the timid prayer
Of the minutest Cricket —
The most unworthy Flower —

When all the Children sleep —
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light Her lamps —
Then bending from the Sky —

With infinite Affection —
And infiniter Care —
Her Golden finger on Her lip —
Wills Silence — Everywhere —

Reading of "Nature—the Gentlest Mother is,"

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

Dickinson's speaker, employing her peerless mystical voice, is dramatizing a selection of the countless ways in which Mother Nature looks after her charges.

First Stanza: The Mothering of Mother Nature

Nature — the Gentlest Mother is,
Impatient of no Child —
The feeblest — or the waywardest —
Her Admonition mild —

The speaker in Emily Dickinson's "Nature — the Gentlest Mother is" (#790 in Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson) attributes to Mother Nature the quality of "Gentlest Mother."

The speaker also informs her listeners that this gentlest of mothers is infinitely patient with her children, cautioning even the "feeblest" and the "waywardest" in a "mild" manner.

Second Stanza: Disciplining Methods

In Forest — and the Hill —
By Traveller — be heard —
Restraining Rampant Squirrel —
Or too impetuous Bird —

As her human children travel over hillsides or ride through forests, those children are likely to hear their gentle Mother, "Restraining Rampant Squirrel," or muffling a "too impetuous Bird." The speaker expresses the natural behavior of animals in terms of the disciplining methods used by the "Gentlest Mother."

The behavior of the animals indicates that the mother has dealt gently with them. It is her tenderness that allows them to grow, flourish, and remain ensconced in her gentle arms.

Third Stanza: Measured Ways

How fair Her Conversation —
A Summer Afternoon —
Her Household — Her Assembly —
And when the Sun go down —

The speaker reports that the Mother's "Conversation" is utterly "fair." Relating to the beautiful, peaceful occasion of "a Summer Afternoon," the speaker proclaims the measured ways in which the Mother keeps "Her Household," as she brings together all aspects of her being, or "Her Assembly."

The speaker begins her next thought in the third stanza yet leaves its completion for the next stanza. This break in thought allows the action of the line, "And when the Sun go down," to complete itself, before moving on to the next part of the idea.

Fourth Stanza: Bringing Forth Prayer

Her Voice among the Aisles
Incite the timid prayer
Of the minutest Cricket —
The most unworthy Flower —

The speaker situates the gentle Mother "among the Aisles" where the Mother elicits from the parishioners "the timid prayer." An earlier Dickinsonian speaker has established that her church is one that included the natural creatures who lived around her cloister-like home:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome.

Thus, in this stanza, her speaker reports that the gentle Mother can be found bringing forth prayer from "the minutest Cricket" and "The most unworthy Flower." Of course, the notion of "unworthy" does not apply to this gentle Mother who accepts all prayer with equal justice and equanimity.

Fifth Stanza: Dousing the Lights for Sleep

When all the Children sleep —
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light Her lamps —
Then bending from the Sky —

Moving to the end of the day, "when all the Children sleep," the Mother quietly withdraws to "light Her lamps," which would be the moon and stars, of course. Again, the speaker begins a thought, this time her final thought, in the fifth stanza but waits to finish it in the final stanza.

The thought begins, "Then bending from the Sky,"—the Mother has traveled far to light her night lamps, and now she must bend back to her children.

Sixth Stanza: Hushing for Slumber

With infinite Affection —
And infiniter Care —
Her Golden finger on Her lip —
Wills Silence — Everywhere —

And "with infinite Affection / And infiniter Care," the Mother raises her "Golden finger" to her lips and makes the sign that calls for "silence" as the night enfolds her children "Everywhere" allowing them to slumber peacefully in the stillness she bestows on them.

(Note: To see a Dickinson hand-written version of this poem, please visit "Nature — the Gentlest Mother is")

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

This is the edition I rely on for my commentaries.
This is the edition I rely on for my commentaries. | Source

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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