To be sure, many of those nature poems are also about… death, religious doubt, and unrequited love, but this one seems to be pretty much "about" the way that nature can stop you in your tracks and force you to pay attention. Dickinson spent a lot of time alone, and for much of her adulthood her only companion was her dog, Carlo. Sweet, but sad. In any case, perhaps for that reason many of her poems portray things that one could see while on a walk.
The poem was originally included in a letter to Dickinson's friend, mentor, and possible love-interest Thomas Higginson in 1880. She prefaced the poem with the words, "Dear friend, to the oriole you suggested I add a hummingbird and hope they are not untrue." This sentence provides the scholarly proof that the poem is about a hummingbird. Lucky us! Were it not for this letter, we may not have ever known with certainty what the poem is "about." The poem's origin is important, because while we may read the poem as a separate entity, it was originally attached to something that gave it meaning and context.
"A Route of Evanescence" is an important Dickinson poem to read because it takes a simple, single event—a hummingbird flying near some flowers—and describes that event in extremely condensed and difficult language. In fact, it may be one of the hardest 8-line poems ever written (lucky you!). At least, it's definitely the hardest poem about a hummingbird ever written. That makes it classic Dickinson.
Dickinson's speakers often zoom in on details that ordinary people might not see because they're too busy, you know, working, raising kids, or doing other "normal" social activities. "A Route of Evanescence" is about the way that nature can encourage us to slow down, though, stop all that working and thinking, and just, you know, look.
In today's hyper-technological world, it can be hard to connect with nature, especially if you live in a big city. Dickinson wants to challenge us to find a way, though. We may not be stopping to smell the roses—or even snap photos of them with our smart phones—but at the very least we can notice how cool it is that hummingbirds can fly backwards and flap their wings up to 90 times per second!
Not a Total Recluse
This short New York Times article discusses the one place Dickinson went, even in her reclusive days. So there, everybody.
This is super-sweet: a searchable database of all the strange words Dickinson used in her poems.
Test your Dickinson knowledge (and indulge your inner teacher's pet) with this fun quiz.
Hummingbird in Flight
Check out slow-motion footage of a hummingbird. Awesome stuff.
Dickinson Wasn't the Only One
One scientist in this PBS documentary calls hummingbirds among "the most elite athletes of the animal world."
Hear Your Favorites
Actress and Dickinson fan Julie Harris reads from Dickinson's letters and poems.
Check one out in all its be-jeweled glory.
Emily Dickinson's Flowers
Stop and smell the poems. Here's a slide-show from a recent exhibit on Dickinson's flower poems at the New York Botanical Garden.
Original Draft of the Poem
In this letter we see the original draft of "A Route of Evanescence." This is basically how we know the poem is about a hummingbird!
More of Dickinson's Handwriting
Here's her written version of "I Heard a Fly Buzz."
My Emily Dickinson
Check out contemporary poet Susan Howe's book on what Dickinson means to her.
Get all of her poems right here.
Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson
This is filmmaker Jim Wolpow's strange documentary on the poetess.