By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Barely any of the hundreds of poems Emily Dickinson wrote were published during her lifetime, and indeed, while she was alive, she was far better known as a gardener than a poet. ‘New feet within my garden go’, which is about new generations setting foot in her garden while the seasons continue to roll on and roll round, reminds us of the link between mankind’s toil (working in the garden) and the vast and eternal cycle of nature which makes our achievements seem so small by comparison.
New feet within my garden go –
New fingers stir the sod –
A Troubadour upon the Elm
Betrays the solitude.
New children play upon the green –
New Weary sleep below –
And still the pensive Spring returns –
And still the punctual snow!
‘New feet within my garden go’; ‘New fingers stir the sod’; ‘New children play on the green’; ‘New Weary sleep below’. The repetition of ‘New’ at the head of the first two lines of each stanza reinforces the notion of spring as a season of new life and rebirth, which is here linked to the prospect of new generations discovering the joy of the garden which Dickinson has cultivated.
We plant a tree in the hope of seeing it grow, but also in the knowledge that it will benefit others whom we will never know, who have perhaps not even been born yet.
Yet the tone and meaning of ‘New feet within my garden go’ is not entirely positive. There is something grim suggested at the beginning of that second stanza, where the green on which children play appears to be nourished by the dead: ‘New Weary sleep below’ might be paraphrased as ‘A new lot of weary people, exhausted by life, have died and are now buried underground’.
Decades before T. S. Eliot penned his famous opening lines from The Waste Land, in which April’s cruelness is a direct result of its nurturing of new life that grows out of ‘the dead land’, Emily Dickinson seems to express a similar sentiment.
The dead lie underground, and there is something cruel in the fact that life goes on – spring is even ‘pensive’, suggesting that it possesses consciousness and knows what it’s doing – when so many lie dead beneath the ground.
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‘, and ‘I cannot live with You‘.