For all late bloomers, young and old, our homeschool poem-of-the-week for this second week of October is a tiny autumnal gem from Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Read it with your students — your own little gentians, perhaps — and give them a new friend for life.
God made a little Gentian —
It tried — to be a Rose —
And failed — and all the Summer laughed —
But just before the Snows
There rose a Purple Creature —
That ravished all the Hill —
And Summer hid her Forehead —
And Mockery — was still —
The Frosts were her condition —
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North — invoke it —
Creator — Shall I — bloom?
Great writers are always great observers, and Dickinson knew the wildflowers of her native New England well. This poem is about a specific plant, the Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), one of the late-blooming wildflowers of the northeast. The showy flowers of exuberant summer tend to attract all the attention — they’re the extroverts of the natural world. The late bloomers, by contrast, just bide their time, wait for the noise to die down, and then “ravish all the hill.”
“God made a little Gentian” isn’t quite as formally metrical as many of Dickinson’s poems, but it does follow her usual pattern of short lines of six to eight syllables, and it has just enough rhyme to produce a strong sense of structure: Rose–Snows, Hill–still, come–bloom. Note also the lovely verbal plays on Creature and Creator as well as on Rose (the flower) and rose (the past-tense verb).
The glowing vocabulary word in this poem is Tyrian. That’s a jewel of a word for your students to look up in your family dictionary, and you can use that one word to teach a whole little lesson in geography, history, and natural history. 🐚 (Be sure to track down the source of Tyrian in your homeschool atlas.) Rare color words can be very powerful in writing, but like a sharp spice they have to be used sparingly. Consider how many striking words there are for blue and purple alone: azure, cobalt, cerulean, amethyst, hyacinth, violet, Tyrian. (“There are [words] to which I lift my hat when I see them sitting princelike among their peers on the page. Sometimes I write one, and look at his outlines till he glows as no sapphire.”)
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, “God made a little Gentian” is the quintessential young girl’s poem. You already know an enormously popular modern translation of it — I guarantee you do. There rose a Purple Creature / That ravished all the Hill:
The Frosts were her condition.
What glowing words have you found and what literary discoveries are you making in your homeschool this Cygnus Term? 😊
❡ The cold never bothered me anyway: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. ❄️
❡ Literary lives: The website of the Poetry Foundation includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Emily Dickinson) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers. 🖋
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Add your name to our River Houses mailing list to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox, and print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar to follow along with us as we visit fifty of our favorite friends over the course of the year. 📖