You run to catch the train, but the doors close just as you reach the platform. You arrive at your child’s football game as the team is celebrating the play he ran with ease only a moment before. You select a home you wish to buy, only to find out an offer has just been accepted. You finally summon the courage to ask that girl out, just after she has promised herself to another. Who hasn’t desired something, grasped for it, and just when it seems accessible, some unseen force tugs, pulling the prize forever out of reach? Emily Dickinson plaintively conjures the feelings induced by such disappointment in her poem “Almost,” pictured below.
The tone of the poem conveys grief over something anticipated–hoped for–that is lost with the passage of time. The first line evinces excitement and promise “Within my reach.” To me, this evokes the precipice one reaches just before achieving something that could induce relief. However, the tone shifts in the second line, with the use of the word “could.” The speaker “could have touched !” Her victory in sight, the very edges of her fingertips could have brushed against the finish line! What follows is the declaration, “I might have chanced that way !” The language shifts from “could” to “might.” In the second line, the use of “could” implies that the goal is within tangible reach; however, this next line indicates that a decision was intentionally made, which impacted the speaker’s ability to achieve her goal. “Might” suggests that the speaker selected a path that did not place her within arm’s reach of her prize.
The rhythm of the poem transitions from short and terse to long and winding in lines 4-5. The words “sauntered” and “village” have more syllables, providing a lilting effect. Instead of pursuing her original goal, the speaker has chosen to saunter softly through the village, and the cadence of the verse engages the imagery of a winding amble through a rustic town. This image metaphorically represents the diversion of the speaker’s course from her original goal to a distracting redirection. It is possible, as well, that the speaker is not the one who saunters through town. In spite of the pronoun “I” in lines 2-3, it is possible that the shift in meter indicates a change in perspective for the speaker.
The poem concludes with an image of “unsuspected violets” that “lie low.” As a reader, I envision a dense field, punctuated with little purple dots here and there. The violet stands as a concrete symbol for the prize the speaker “could have touched” earlier in the poem. Yet, this prize is “unsuspected,” as the speaker has chosen an alternative route, so she could not fathom the existence of the little purple buds, whilst strolling lazily through the town. The low lying violets are “Too late for striving fingers / That passed an hour ago.”
Conversely, it could be that the speaker is the violet–awaiting “striving fingers.” At this point, I begin to question the poet–are the violets late? Was the speaker late? Someone has chosen an alternative path. Perhaps, had the flowers grown taller, faster, they might have been discovered by the wanderer–even from the distance of the village road? Is the speaker the ambler or the flower? Needless to say, in either reading, the speaker mourns the loss of an unattainable prize. Were she the wanderer, she could not pluck the buds; were she the bud, she could not enjoy discovery.
I find the overall feeling of the poem, as well as the scenario to which it responds, to be insightful and timeless. On a personal level, I can relate to Ms. Dickinson through the vehicle of this poem. I, like those “unsuspected violets” have always been a late bloomer. I worry over whether I will be construed as inadequate or irrelevant as a result, specifically with regard to my decision to write publicly (if not professionally). I married young, and although my husband and I waited a while to have children, I wandered–so much like the person sauntering softly in Emily’s poem. I had little direction, and as a consequence, I accomplished little. I tell myself I am too late to the writing “game,” if you will. That those finding success at my age have advanced degrees and published work as their scaffolding. I fear that my words will lack authority because I have chosen to become vocal later in life. Regardless, Emily encourages me. I can envision her as the violet, a poet unread and unheard, feeling as though her writing would never have an impact, and yet here I am, nearly two centuries later, reading her work, finding meaning, and identifying with it. Timeless art, of any kind, is universal. Therefore, Ms. Dickinson, your violet reached its full height at just the right moment, and you have not been overlooked.