Emily Dickinson, “To make a prairie” (1755)

Looking out at the vast expanse of prairie, miles of wilderness and potential, is itself a reverie. It is, perhaps, the reverie, a surge of wonder at the mere hint of opportunity. All men are created equal, and each can do something special with her life. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not just rights, but assertions of optimism.

And then, what we understand now. A land where every home is a broken dream. Where billionaires rage on account of a combination of insecurity and unearned deference. Where the reality of race can be spoken, but never heard. Where small frustrations balloon into angry, hateful conspiracy theories, where we project onto others rather than relate, where violence and the threat of violence are the only ways people feel empowered.

Sometimes I am asked “Why poetry?” My response the last few months has been the arts are the only thing we have:

To make a prairie (1755)
Emily Dickinson

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Dickinson begins with the quintessentially American—the prairie, the unexplored, the undiscovered country. It is an extraordinarily bold starting point; she wants no less than to make a prairie, to bring a landscape into being.

She initially uses her creative powers to dwell on what is natural. To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee. Vendler (2010) speaks of the erotic overtones of this imagery, and I do think they are important (Vendler 522). However, I think it remarkable that she starts both bold and restrained. “To make a prairie” intones the spirit of our creed, but a prairie is actually made by simple animals and plants through natural processes. In her quiet way, she’s showing the spirit of the creed is the fundamental problem.

It’s the problem she has to start with, as it’s her spirit too. Her report of how exactly the ingredients work becomes jumbled in her mind—a clover and one bee is followed by one clover, and a bee, and revery (523). I can’t tell why the jumble occurs, but I do know that when what you thought was true does not work for you, you fall back on your belief. In this case, what’s left is “revery.”

Revery—dreaming—moved her from the prairie to the clover and the bee. It moved from a hopeful whole to natural potential. And it didn’t entail any progress for the artist. She needs to know how to make prairie, to have a basis upon which she can build. All she’s done so far is deconstruct.

The revery alone will do, if bees are few
. Nature does not always motivate, still less a prairie of the confines of one’s country. What makes a prairie is the revery, what makes a revery is the prairie. In dreaming, she asserts her independence, her ability or inability to put it all together, alone. The funny thing is that this makes the prairie fertile ground for clover and bee, hitherto unknown.


Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010.


  1. What?
    Is that all it means?
    Similiar to the famous hat the Irish prose writer, Frank O’Connor, threw over
    the orchard wall as a talismanic gesture those apples would be his?
    That all?
    Or is that everything?

  2. You’re welcome. Even though it was “up in the air”, I was attempting to make a statement lol
    A marvel how much is wrapped up in so little.
    If it weren’t so I guess these poets would be novelists!

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