‘If you were coming in the Fall…’ The key word is ‘If’. Some of the best love poems are poems addressed to an absent beloved. George MacDonald wrote a very short poem, ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’, comprising just two short words of longing: ‘Come / Home’. As the double meaning of the word ‘want’ (both ‘desire’ and ‘lack’) illustrates, we want what we can’t have. Or, to borrow another old phrase: absence makes the heart grow fonder. Emily Dickinson, in her poem ‘If you were coming in the Fall’, explores this idea of missing an absent beloved.
If you were coming in the Fall,
I’d brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do, a Fly.
If I could see you in a year,
I’d wind the months in balls—
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse—
If only Centuries, delayed,
I’d count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen’s Land.
If certain, when this life was out—
That yours and mine, should be—
I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,
And take Eternity—
But, now, uncertain of the length
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—
That will not state—its sting.
In summary: if you were coming back to me in the fall, or autumn, then I could happily endure the summer while I wait for you, and it would pass in no time, knowing that I would see you again when autumn comes. That short summer’s wait would be no more bothersome to me than a fly to a housewife, who simply swats it away. Similarly, if I could see you in a year’s time, I’d be happy to cross the months off between now and then and wait patiently for next year to come. Even if I had to wait centuries, I would patiently do so, counting off the years until my fingers rotted and dropped off my hands, falling all the way down to the other end of the world (‘Van Diemen’s Land’ is the old name for Tasmania). If I could be certain that when we two died, we would be reunited in the afterlife for eternity, that wouldn’t be a problem – I would simply toss my life aside, like the peeled rind of a fruit, and head for eternity.
But with that final stanza, announced by ‘But’, there comes the twist, the rub, the truth: the speaker cannot be sure of when she will see her beloved again, and instead time goads her, buzzing like a Goblin Bee that hovers around you, threatening to sting you, but not telling you when it will do so.
Uncertainty, then, is the theme of ‘If you were coming in the Fall’. It’s all well and good to say ‘no ifs or buts’, but this poem is almost all a case of ifs and but, or rather one decisive but at the end (a but that is decisive in its outlining of life’s uncertainty). In the last analysis, this is a poem about two lovers, separated for some reason, and the yearning one of them feels for the other – without knowing when, or indeed if, she will be reunited with her beloved. Perhaps absence won’t always make the heart grow fonder. Perhaps there comes a point where, as Prefab Sprout had it, absence makes the heart lose weight.
Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems is well worth getting hold of in the beautiful (and rather thick) single volume edition by Faber. Discover more about Dickinson’s classic poems with ‘I died for Beauty, but was scarce‘, ‘One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted‘, ‘I cannot live with You‘, and ‘A Bird came down the Walk’.