Emily Dickinson, “Apology for Her” (852)

Dickinson’s reflections on sexuality can be harsh. The last two lines of this short poem have a distinct tone, as she seems to feel wronged, holding a certain pride at the isolation of another—Herself, without a Parliament / Apology for Me. I believe that tone can be used to unlock a specific interpretation of this poem, an interpretation which doesn’t hesitate to get personal and philosophical and pained, all at once:

Apology for Her (852)
Emily Dickinson

Apology for Her
Be rendered by the Bee —
Herself, without a Parliament
Apology for Me. 

Apology for Her / Be rendered by the Bee—apology for who? Regarding what? “The Bee” brings the problem of male sexuality into play. If “Her” is a flower—and Dickinson does not hesitate to identify herself with flowers—it is possible to say bees use flowers, only giving anything back through pollination. “Men are trash,” Twitter is fond of saying, and it looks to me like Dickinson would tweet the same. Male bees are unthinking and unreflective. They take for the hive’s good, serving a Queen, but can really be said to “apologize” for their exploitative behavior with one excuse: they simply don’t know any better.

Bees, like men, are truly unapologetic. This calls to mind another significant issue. More than likely, Dickinson was aware of Book 2 of the Iliad, where the mass of Achaean warriors are likened to bees when summoned to an assembly by their rulers:

…the people pressed forward to hear. They swarmed like bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters; even so did the mighty multitude pour from ships and tents to the assembly, and range themselves upon the wide-watered shore, while among them ran Wildfire Rumour, messenger of Jove, urging them ever to the fore. Thus they gathered in a pell-mell of mad confusion, and the earth groaned under the tramp of men as the people sought their places.

This passage, where the “mighty multitude” of armed men indulges rumors while gathering “in a pell-mell of mad confusion,” is Homer depicting men when they’re governable. They are assembling; they will listen; like bees, they put in the work. When studying ancient political philosophy, this bee simile is fundamental—if one doesn’t take it seriously, a number of other comments about human nature and governance are inaccessible.

Dickinson seems to wonder about manliness as a construct. At worst, men use and exploit. But what if being obedient and dutiful is the best? That doesn’t seem good enough for love, no matter how much one may want to be wanted by another. It doesn’t seem to be good enough for proper democratic participation. The key problem: a lack of reflection means an inability to admit wrongdoing.

There is no apology for the flower. She feels used, and I believe at this juncture we’re warranted in making a further assumption. “Her” stands for female sexuality in general. “Her” includes Dickinson herself. The transition from “Her” to “Herself” entails the emergence of Dickinson’s individuality. Herself, without a Parliament / Apology for Me—I read this now taking “Parliament” literally: an assembly of representative men. Without such men—without letting a crude manliness assert itself in her life—Dickinson asserts her dignity, finds her self.

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