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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Indeterminacy, Freedom, and Female Authorship in Emily Dickinson’s “All overgrown by cunning moss"

 It is illuminating to assess the impact of one writer’s imagination on that of another, who may be working in isolation, even in another continent. For Emily Dickinson, the work of Charlotte Bronte, publishing under the pseudonym, Currer Bell, was of particular interest, perhaps because of Charlotte’s desire to disguise the fact she was a female, and also that the use of a pseudonym emboldened her to write about transgressive topics, and essentially liberate herself from society’s numerous and sundry cages for women, especially at the time that Dickinson lived, in the middle of the nineteenth century. 

“All overgrown by cunning moss,” is a poem written by Emily Dickinson around the year 1859. It is one of the earlier poems and does not reflect the impact of the Civil War.  The manuscript is in the Houghton Library, and a facsimile can be accessed online.

The poem is quite brief. It consists of three stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme is ABCD and the lines have no consistent metric feet, except to say that they alternate between relatively longer and shorter lines. 

Emily Dickinson wrote and bundled her poems in fascicles. The manuscripts are now in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. 

Emily Dickinson’s poem often deal with death, graves, and mortality, and this poem is no different. The “little cage” of “Currer Bell” is the grave, “all overgrown by cunning moss.” It lies in Haworth, which is the last town that Currer Bell, the pseudonym for Charlotte Bronte, lived. The repetitions of certain words give rise to certain meanings. First, there is “This Bird” (stanza 2), which is capitalized, as is the “Nightingale.”  The grave is overgrown with weeds; it’s the resting place (the final cage) of the name of the nom-de-plume, “Currer Bell.” However, the actual author referred to as the Nightingale, or, Charlotte Bronte, has long escaped, and is in neither nest nor cage. In the poem, Charlotte Bronte is in the eternal green of the Yorkshire hills, and in “other latitudes” which could signify the world of the intellect. Among Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, the “Nightingale,” refers to the creative spirit, and a voice of nature. 

What Emily Dickinson probably did not know was that Haworth was not a charming, verdant town or village when the Brontes lived there.  Instead, it was a grimy mill town with polluted air and water, due to the toxins produced by the textile industry, which had transitioned from a cottage industry (everyone had a loom in their front room), to own of dirty, crowded factories and no sewer systems. The life expectancy was just 25 years of age when the Brontes lived at Haworth (Cahill, 2018). 

Nevertheless, death permeates the poem, and the statement that “the Yorkshire hills are green – “ (Dickinson, 1999) juxtaposes the green of life with final “cage” that keeps “Currer Bell.” It's a deceptively simple poem, and the term “cunning moss” is probably key to it all. The “cunning moss” – the intelligent growing plant life that sprouts up to cover and disguise, is keeping her secret safe, while “cage” (the grave) which is “interspersed with weed” contrasts with the “other latitudes” and the Yorkshire hills.  

Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, “All overgrown by cunning moss” becomes a fascinating exploration of indeterminacy. The grave and what it has inside it are ultimately impossible to capture, define, or identify. The name of the person is only the pseudonym, and the captor, “This Bird” have long gone, not found in any nest, or in any state of being, for that matter. The “frosts too sharp” precipitated translocation; the sense that a bird (entity) willed itself to “other latitudes” which seem safer, albeit impermanent.  

In this poem, indeterminacy is a kind of freedom, even as it means erasure and the impossibility of recognition in the mortal coil wherein the pseudonym existed, at least in sufficient capacity to escape and to thus defy a socially constructed form of being.  


Cahill, J. (Aug 11, 2018). “The ultimate guide to Bronte country: Haworth, Yorkshire.” Beyond the Lamp Post. 11 Aug 2018.  Accessed Sept 16, 2020.

Dickinson, E. (n.d.) “All overgrown by cunning moss, J148, Fr146.” Emily Dickinson Archive. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Accessed 11 August 2020.

Dickinson, E. (1999). “All overgrown by cunning moss, (146).” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 16 Sept 2020.

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