In ‘May-Flower,’ Dickinson uses several literary devices, in addition to short, direct lines and mostly simple language, to describe nature. This poem is much simpler than most Dickinson poems, something that makes it more accessible and certainly easier to understand. That being said, there is a great deal that one could read into the text if they chose to. This is especially true when Dickinson starts speaking about the human soul and antiquity.
Summary of May-Flower
In the first part of the poem, the speaker spends the lines describing a flower and what it looks like as it grows to its most beautiful in May. It’s aromatic, pink, low to the ground, and small. She goes in, using personification to depict the flower as an integral part of the environment. It’s known to the life around it and it’s known to the human soul. At this point, the flower takes on a symbolic meaning, suggesting that all human beings have this symbol of nature, beauty, and rebirth in their soul. The final lines conclude by describing how nature is covered in tiny beauties like these and that it forswears “antiquity.”
Themes in May-Flower
Dickinson engages with themes of nature in ‘May-Flower.’ This expands to also touch on humanity’s relationship with nature and time. The natural images she spends time describing in the lines of this poem are all part of the broader expanse of nature, something she says “forswears / Antiquity.” It exists now, for this moment, and then it’s gone. This adds to its beauty and to its allure to the speaker. Dickinson also uses literary devices to draw attention to the flower’s broader relationship to its world. It is known to the birds and other plant life that live around it.
Structure and Form
‘May-Flower’’ by Emily Dickinson is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains almost all follow a pattern of ABCB, with different end sounds. The only exception is stanza one which does not rhyme at all. Lovers of Dickinson’s poetry will note right away that these lines are much shorter than her traditional iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines. They vary in length, with between four and six syllables per line. Due to the brevity of these lines and the poem in general, each word and description takes on an elevated importance.
Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘May-Flower.’ These include but are not limited to imagery, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, imagery, is a common device used by poets when they create particularly effective descriptions and are able to transport the reader into a particular scene or state of mind. For example, when the poet mentions the “moss” that’s “Known by the knoll / Next to the robin.”
Alliteration is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Covert” and “Candid” at the beginnings of lines three and four of the first stanza and “Known” and “knoll” in the second line of the second stanza.
Enjambment is a formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the second stanza and lines three and four of the third stanza.
Analysis of May-Flower
Pink, small, and punctual,
Covert in April,
Candid in May,
In the first stanza of ‘May-Flower,’ the speaker begins by describing a “may flower.” Although she doesn’t state it directly, with context clues, such as the title of the poem, it’s obvious that she’s talking about a flower that blooms in spring. It’s “pink, small” and always gloms at the same time of the year. By calling it “punctual,” the poet is using a device known as personification. It can also be seen in the second stanza.
She adds that the flower grows low to the ground and is “Aromatic,” exactly as one would imagine a flower to be. In the third and fourth lines, she gives the flower a bit of a timeline. It blooms in April, but it’s not until May that it’s “Candid” or at its most beautiful. It stands out then while it still blends into the background in the month prior.
Dear to the moss,
Known by the knoll,
Next to the robin
In every human soul.
In the second stanza, the speaker says that the flower is “Dear to the moss” and “Known to the knoll.” This helps the reader imagine the flower’s environment. It lives amongst other living things in the forest. These things “know” one another and exist in the same ways.
In the fourth line of this stanza she adds a twist into the poem. She says that the flower is known to these elements of nature and “In every human soul.” Now, she’s elevating the flower further. It becomes a symbol rather than a real physical flower. It represents spring, new life, beauty, and unity with the natural world that tall people have access to. It’s in one’s soul. This suggests that its not always known to those who experience it. Some might not realize the connection they have until they open themselves up to what their soul is saying.
Bold little beauty,
Bedecked with thee,
In the third stanza of ‘May-Flower,’ the speaker starts to describe the flower again and nature more broadly. The flower is small, but it’s all beautiful and bold. Nature is bedecked by such beauties. It’s made up of tiny different lives, all of which are valuable and beautiful. In the third and fourth lines, the poet’s speaker states that nature “forswears / Antiquity.” This final phrase is more complicated than much of the poem. She describes nature as giving up or swearing off antiquity, or the ancient past. Through this phrase, she is perhaps drawing attention to the temporary nature of life. One can’t go into the woods and see rows of flowers dating back hundreds of years. These lives bloom, fade and die. This only adds to their allure.
Readers who enjoyed ‘May-Flower’ should also consider reading some of Emily Dickinson’s other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Fame is a Bee’ – is a short poem, but one that taps into Dickinson’s own dislike for fame.
- ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ – is one of Dickinson’s best-known poems. It uses personification to describe hope as a bird.
- ‘The Heart asks Pleasure-first’ – touches on death and depicts it as something that is in the end desirable.