‘A Burdock Clawed My Gown’ by Emily Dickinson (also called “A Burdock Twitched My Gown”) is an exemplary poem of how metaphors can deliver deeper and more practical meaning.
When most people consider poetry, the first thing that comes to mind is rhyming, complex words, and musings of a lost poet about something. But that’s not it.
Emily Dickinson, in the poem “A Burdock Clawed My Gown,” shows how practical lessons a poem can give wrapped in the beautiful fabric of metaphor and meaning.
Here’s the poem and then the meaning, analysis, and historical context of the poem.
A Burdock Clawed My Gown by Emily Dickinson
A Burdock twitched my gown Not Burdock’s – blame – but mine Who went too near the Burdock’s Den – A Bog affronts my shoe. What else have Bogs to do – The only Trade they know The splashing men? ’Tis Minnows – should despise – An Elephant’s calm eyes Look further on!
Meaning and Summary of the Poem
Dickinson describes different things you would find in nature and then tells us about the nature of these things. She says that a burdock clawed to her gown but it was not the burdock’s fault.
She steps into a bog and says that again, it was not the bog’s fault. The bog and the burdock are meant to do these things. That’s their nature. It is not their fault but the person who engages with them.
Fire burning someone is not the fire’s fault. That’s its nature. It is the person’s fault to go near the fire. She adds that the tiny fishes that live in the bog despise the elephant and its calm eyes.
The elephant, large and magnificent, can look at the distance and see a lot more than what the minnows in the bog can see in the murky, dirty water.
Metaphors and Meanings
Readers should notice how the metaphors Dickinson has used all have some negative connotations. The Burdock bothers anyone it latches to and which sane person wants to step in a bog?
These are all the things that we do by mistake and yet we try to blame it on the things whose nature is to do exactly that. Why blame them when the fault was ours?
The only thing that we should do is accept our mistakes and make sure that the next time we are more careful. So the metaphor is to avoid people who are similar to burdocks and bogs, metaphorically.
If we deal with people whose nature is to harm, deceive, cheat, and hurt us, we must accept that it’s our fault. We should not deal with these kinds of people.
Blaming them would be wrong because that’s their nature, and if we cannot see our fault in it, we might end up stepping on another bog or mixing with burdocks.
The entire poem and the metaphor used seem very directed and personal. Was Dickinson targeting someone? Did she have a specific person in mind while writing this poem?
As it turns out, she was writing about someone, and for someone. The poem was meant for her brother, Austin Dickinson. He was getting more affected by a political figure and the rival of Edward Dickinson, Emily’s and Edward’s father.
The poem is meant to tell Edward how rival political might claw and attach to him. How this person is like the bog, just there to splash the murky water.
The theme of the Poem
The most prominent and conspicuous theme of the poem is the nature of things and our acceptance of them. We need to understand that some things cannot change.
The bog will never not splash and wet your shoes when you step in it or the burdock will never roll off your clothes once it is attached to you.
That’s the nature of things like the fire is hot and ice is cold. Putting the blame on things that are meant to be that way is wrong. We must accept our own faults and try to avoid things that do not align with us.
One does not wish for the fire to be cool and touch it. One just avoids touching the fire.
The other theme of the poem is being careful about whom we trust and follow. The world is full of false prophets. Expecting them to change their nature and be good is foolish.
So it is on us to avoid these people, be careful who we trust, and ensure that we do not ‘step in the bog.’ That’s what Emily Dickinson wanted to convey through this poem.
Read more poems by Emily Dickinson: A Bird Came Down the Walk by Emily Dickinson: Analysis