poems from dickinson to thomas niles

Thomas Johnson's Note on Poem 1463

MANUSCRIPTS: Five fair copies of this deservedly famous poem are known to exist; a sixth,sent to the Norcross sisters, has probably been destroyed. All were sent to correspondents andtherefore indicated assurance ED felt about its quality. The copy reproduced above (Amherst)was sent to Mrs. Edward Tuckerman and is discussed below. The poem seems to have been written about 1879. On the twelfth of May of that year Helen Hunt Jackson wrote to ED from Colorado Springs thanking her for the "Bluebird." (See "Before you thought of Spring.") The letter (Harvard) concludes:

What should you think of trying your hand on the oriole? He will be along presently.

Presumably during the course of the summer ED replied thus (Bingham 99-3):

Dear friend,

To the Oriole you suggested I add a Humming Bird and hope they are not untrue -

A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it's tumbled Head -
The Mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy Morning's Ride.

Evidently enclosed with it was the poem beginning "One of the ones that Midas touched."

The fair copy sent to Mrs. Edward Tuckerman cannot be dated with certainty but seems to be inthe handwriting of 1880. The poem is introduced by the message:

I send you only a Humming Bird. Will you let me add a few Jasmin in a few Days?

In November 1880 ED enclosed a copy (BPL Higg 46) as one of four poems in a letter (Porter) to T.W. Higginson; she identified it in the letter by title as "A Humming-Bird," and he so endorsed it on the copy of the poem itself. In text and form it is identical with the copy to Mrs.Tuckerman except that the text is arranged as two quatrains. Late in 1882 she incorporated the poem in a note (Bingham) to Mabel Loomis Todd:

Dear friend,

I cannot make an Indian Pipe but please accept a Humming Bird.

The poem follows, identical in text and form with the copy to Mrs. Tuckerman except that there is no comma after "Tunis." A fifth copy (Bingham 106), written about April 1883, was enclosed with two other poems in a letter to Thomas Niles; the letter identifies it by title as "A Humming Bird." It is identical in text and form with the copy to Mrs. Tuckerman except that line 1 ends with a comma and line 3 is without punctuation.

Evidently about this time ED sent a copy, now lost, to the Norcross cousins, signing it "Hummingbird." Francess Norcross wrote Lavinia about it in 1891, and quoted it in part; the letter is published in AB (1945), 147. At one time Mrs. Todd seems to have had a worksheet draftof the poem, though it cannot now be located, and records the fact that "revolving" there offered four alternative words (AB, 37):

A possible reason for ED's selection of Tunis (line 7) is set forth in Frank Davidson, "A Note on Emily Dickinson's Use of Shakespeare," New England Quarterly, XVIII (1945), 407-408,which cites Antonio's comment to Sebastian about Claribel, in The Tempest (II, i, 246-248):

She that is queen of Tunis; she that dwells
Ten leagues beyond man's life; she that from Naples
Can have no note, unless the sun were post -

For a critical discussion of the imagery, see Grover Smith, "Dickinson's A Route of Evanescence,"Explicator, VIII (1950), item 54.

A much earlier poem on the hummingbird is "Within my Garden, rides a Bird" (no. 500), written about 1862. Like the poem above, it projects an image of the bird as a wheel so swift in its motion that only the stir of blossoms identifies its presence. Aside from the fact that the concept persisted in the poet's mind, the poems bear no artistic relation to each other. All evidence suggests that this poem was spontaneously created at the time it was set down, with no conscious reference to the earlier poem. In other words, it is not a redaction of an earlier draft.

PUBLICATION: The poem was first published in Atlantic Monthly, LXVIII (October1891), 450, in an article which Higginson wrote dealing with the letters and poems he had received from ED. It was first collected in Poems (1891), 130, titled "The Humming-Bird," as it had been in the Atlantic article. The note to Mrs. Todd is in Letters (ed.1894), 431; (ed. 1931), 420. The BPL copy is reproduced in facsimile in G.F. Whicher, This Was a Poet (New York, 1939), 263.

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Last updated on January 15, 1999