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Emily Dickinson

If you were coming in the fall

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1890

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Summary and Study Guide


“If you were coming in the Fall” (1890) is a lyric ballad poem by American writer Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). The poem follows many of Dickinson’s conventions, including irregular use of punctuation, focus on natural imagery, a concern about time and death, and a regular rhythm and rhyme scheme. Like most of her poems, “If you were coming in the Fall” follows the ballad stanza format, giving it a musical quality. The poem is primarily about the longing one feels for an absent lover and the experience of waiting for that lover to return. The first four stanzas proclaim the speaker will wait no matter how long, but the last stanza takes a turn, almost like a sonnet, and expresses fear and doubt about the time the speaker must wait. While the poem is one of Dickinson’s more popular ones, it has not received the same scope of critical attention that some of her other poems have received.

Poet Biography

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, to an upper-class family. Her father was a lawyer and would eventually serve as a congressman, and little is known about her mother. Dickinson grew up during a time of great change in America, including the lead up to the Civil War and several Christian revivals that inspired intense religious fervor. Christianity played a big role in Dickinson’s life, and imagery from the Bible shows up constantly in her poetry, though her own religious beliefs wavered throughout her life.

Dickinson received a strong education for a woman in her era, and she enjoyed her studies, especially the sciences. She would attend school until she was 17, at which time she returned to her father’s house where she would live for the rest of her life.

Dickinson would eventually develop a reputation at home for being eccentric and withdrawn. While not initially a recluse, she quickly grew tired of her expected duties as an unmarried woman living in her father’s house, which included cleaning and entertaining guests. She did enjoy baking, though, and she spent a lot of time building and tending to her garden.

It wasn’t until the 1850s after a series of deaths of loved ones that Dickinson would begin to fully withdraw from the world, rarely leaving her house and mainly only communicating with other people through letters. This behavior reached its most extreme in the late 1860s when her reputation as a social recluse was established.

While Dickinson produced hundreds of poems, she wrote most of her poetry in the span of a few years in the 1860s, and her production lessened considerably after 1866. Dickinson’s poetry is distinct in voice and style, and perhaps her most famous writing quirk is her irregular use of punctuation, including the liberal use of dashes. This irregular form confused the first editors of her work, and for a long time most of Dickinson’s published poetry did not contain her original punctuation. This is also in part because she barely published anything while she was alive, and her prolific output was not discovered and published until after her death.

Later in her life, many of Dickinson’s friends and family died, leaving her depressed. She would eventually die in 1886.

While initial publications of her poetry were heavily edited, they were immediately popular, and Dickinson became one of the most well-known American poets of the 19th century. She is often discussed with Walt Whitman as the quintessential American poets of the era.

Poem Text

If you were coming in the Fall,

I'd brush the Summer by

With half a smile, and half a spurn,

As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,

I'd wind the months in balls---

And put them each in separate Drawers,

For fear the numbers fuse---

If only Centuries, delayed,

I'd count them on my Hand,

Subtracting, til my fingers dropped

Into Van Dieman's Land,

If certain, when this life was out---

That yours and mine, should be

I'd toss it yonder, like a Rind,

And take Eternity---

But, now, uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee---

That will not state--- its sting.

Dickinson, Emily. “If You Were Coming in the Fall.” 1890. Allpoetry.com.


“If you were coming in the Fall” opens with an unnamed speaker addressing an unnamed subject. The speaker tells the subject that if they were to come in the fall, the speaker would treat the summer before the fall with the concern a housewife treats an annoying housefly that buzzes past their face. They would swat the time away with little thought or care, and it would be no time at all.

In the second stanza, the time changes from seasons to years. The speaker repeats the same thought as the first stanza but with a different metaphor. Instead of the time being a fly, the time is now a set of yarn-like balls the speaker places into different drawers. Doing this keeps the months separated, making them easier to endure. If they were to merge together into one ball, the hours and days and months would merge together, and instead of easily counted units, the time would be one big blob difficult to count down.

The third stanza shifts the time again, this time from years to centuries. The speaker says they can endure this time as easily as counting the centuries on their hand like one counts to 10. The speaker says they can wait this long for their love to return, but the final line suggests more doubt than they introduced at the end of the previous stanza. They say their fingers will drop in Van Diemen’s Land, which is what Tasmania was known as at the time. So even though they can wait this long, doing so will result in their wasting away into some far away, unknown land.

The penultimate stanza proposes a hypothetical. They say that if they knew for certain they would be together after death, they would easily throw their life away like the rind of a fruit. They would happily take death if it meant they and the subject would be reunited, and in this scenario their time together would be eternity, or forever.

The final stanza shifts the poem’s tone. Here, they admit they are not sure when or if the subject will ever return, and the feeling of not knowing is like having a bee constantly swirling around their head ready to sting at any moment.