Lesson #234: ‘To own her for a Friend’ (Emily Dickinson) – Making English a part of your thinking

To see her is a Picture –

To hear her is a Tune –

To know her an Intemperance

As innocent as June –

To know her not – Affliction –

To own her for a Friend

A warmth as near as if the Sun

Were shining in your Hand.

– Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

As I was walking through our garden a few days ago, I noticed just how beautiful these white azaleas were, blooming beautifully in the June sunshine. 💮

Thinking about white flowers reminded me of American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who is famous for how she lived almost as much as for her stirring poems.

Dickinson lived very quietly at home from her thirties onwards, writing poems, homemaking (managing the home, especially in a creative way), baking a lot, cultivating (growing) beautiful species (living types) of flowers, and being always dressed in white. 💮

She was also said to have been very shy and retired (tending to hide away, as if shy), only meeting close friends who came to visit her as she never left home during the last years of her life. She was fond of children and legend has it (it is a legend or a story – whether true or not) that she used to drop sweets from her upstairs window to children in the neighbourhood, a gesture (welcoming act towards others) of simple, friendly kindness. After she died, her relatives found over a thousand poems in her room, as well as an incredible collection of dried flowers, that continue to inspire us today.

Emily Dickinson lived a very secluded (separated from society, isolated, kept apart) life – comparable with one of our strict pandemic lockdowns! – but it didn’t stop her from enjoying some very special friendships.

She valued these friends so much that she often wrote poems specifically for them.

This poem is one of these. 🌼

As we read and appreciate her verses today, we will pay special attention to her figurative (or symbolic) language.

Of course you will have a vocabulary list provided below so that you can fully understand what you read.

✍️ Most importantly of all, think of this as an opportunity for you to practice thinking and feeling in English.

Once you start to connect your imagination with what you are reading, it is be more likely to become a part of your thinking than if you just memorise lots of new words without connections or context. ✍️

So join me here as we create our own memorable connections with this poem! Here it is in full again.

To see her is a Picture –

To hear her is a Tune –

To know her an Intemperance

As innocent as June –

To know her not – Affliction –

To own her for a Friend

A warmth as near as if the Sun

Were shining in your Hand.

– Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

📝 #SOME OBSERVATIONS

✏️ 1. Capitals and Punctuation

In English we sometimes will describe a person or thing as ‘a picture of [something else]’. For example, ‘Karen is the picture of her mother’, which means ‘Karen looks just like her mother’.

When Emily Dickinson writes that ‘To see her [friend] is a Picture’, she is meaning that just looking at her friend is like looking at a wonderful picture or painting. She emphasises that the picture is wonderful by capitalising it (starting the word with a capital letter).  

She does the same with ‘Tune’, ‘Intemperance’, ‘Affliction’. Read these lines as if they were written according to this formula:

✒️ ‘For me it is a [picture/tune/intemperance/affliction] to [see/hear/know her/know her not]’.

This brings me to another point:

✍️ Dickinson was known for using idiosyncratic (peculiar, individual, unique in an unusual way) punctuation in her poems. For example, you can see how most of her lines end with a dash (‘ – ’). In other poems, she places commas in unusual places within a line or sentence, forcing readers to stop and take a quick breath in these places. Just be careful not to copy this technique in your everyday English writing; it is only suitable for poetry!

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✏️ 2. Vocabulary

Here are three words you might like to know the meaning of, if you want to appreciate the poem more fully:

  • intemperance: lack of restraint or moderation; excessive consumption (taking, consuming) of something that is usually negative, such as alcohol
  • affliction: suffering or pain
  • to own [someone or something]: 1) to have ownership or possession of something 2) [ITS MEANING HERE IN THIS CONTEXT] to boast of

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✏️ 3. What does the poem mean?

Of course the poem means something different to nearly everyone, but one thing is certain: the poem reflects a person’s love and affection for a good friend.

When reading poetry, you need to become more imaginative and sensitive to every symbol and image the poet offers you.

👉 Dickinson describes her friend as being like ‘a Picture’, like ‘a Tune’, like ‘A warmth as near as if the Sun / Were shining in your Hand’.

She also realises that perhaps she is expressing too much feeling; ‘to know her [is] an Intemperance / As innocent as June’. This part simply means that Dickinson’s friendship at times feels like an excessive emotion that cannot be restrained.

Yet this love is not selfish or lustful in its motives but is only pure and ‘innocent’, just like the month of June is a time when the sun shines most brightly and purely in the Northern Hemisphere. 🌞🏵️

It is a beautiful way to express this!

Today’s poem – with its references to June, sunshine, ‘a picture’ and ‘a tune’ – has reminded us in a lovely, seasonal way of one of America’s greatest poets. It has been a long time since we last read one of her poems (Lesson #125: How Reading Rhythmically Can Improve Your English Intonation), and surely we will return again soon to Emily Dickinson’s simple yet strongly-felt poetry. 🏵️