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01 July 2011

As if I asked a common Alms

As if I asked a common Alms,
And in my wondering hand
A Stranger pressed a Kingdom,
And I, bewildered, stand—
As if I asked the Orient
Had it for me a Morn—
And it should lift its purple Dikes,
And shatter me with Dawn! 
                                                        - F 14 (1858)

This poem, written as a statement and reprise in common hymn form, has the implied form "It was..." followed by two sets of "As if"s  and then two consequences of the "as ifs". In the first series she says that [something] is akin to asking for a penny from a stranger and receiving a kingdom, bewildering her; and in the reprise that that something is like asking the East for morning–-for the sun does rise in the east–and getting dawn. 
     Although the first comparison seems on the face of it more impressive -- expecting alms and getting a kingdom--than the second where she asks for morning and gets what one might expect, dawn, we are meant to see that dawn is more spectacular. The Orient lifts its purple dikes, yet instead of a flood of dawn that might drown, she denotes it as a force that shatters her. A very unexpected verb. A kingdom, she implies, is a paltry thing compared to the force of a purple dawn sky suddenly lifting to reveal the blazing sun.
     The poem was sent to Thomas Higginson as part of the series of letters where she asks him to be her Preceptor. He recognized her unique abilities yet would have not been entirely pleased by the slant rhyme of Morn and Dawn.
     Part of the concision of the poem, and thus its power, lies in her neglecting the "It was" implied subject of the two images. Perhaps she was implying that Higginson becoming her preceptor would be like an unimagined kingdom or dawn. But to me it seems she is talking about insight or epiphany. She goes outside to enjoy the early morning and is overwhelmed by magnificence. This in itself is an epiphany: Nature has incredible power over emotions and imagination--especially if you're Emily Dickinson and extremely sensitive. The sun has been used as the eye of heaven by Shakespeare and by the Greeks, but experiencing the metaphor as if it were truth is an experience for true poets.


  1. Thank you for your running commentary, Susan, which I've followed for several years, though I don't believe I've commented in turn (here) before. For now, I only want to call attention to the phrase "my wondering hand." Given that this poem was eventually, as you allude to, followed immediately by ED's query, "But, will you be my Preceptor, Mr Higginson?" we may well understand the "wondering hand" as the proferred, questioning poem and the "hand" with which/in which it is written.
    Beyond or apart from that, I find a "wonderful" ambiguity in the way "my wondering hand" fluctuates between a
    tentative asking and a being overcome.

    1. It's a lovely phrase, 'wondering hand.' You've helped me see the poem in a new way. I think there is a strong self-referent there. Right now I'm reading a couple of books of ED poems interpreted through the lens of Zen -- and the assumption that unknowing, accidentally, Dickinson (can't remember the precise term) became enlightened or had an ego transcendence.

      It's an interesting way to reread poems and it certainly is relevant here. The speaker asks for common things but beholds magnificent things. Perhaps, along your line of thinking (I think), she is embarking on poetry or a poem and then the floodgates open and she is 'Shatter[ed] with dawn'.

      I'm really loving this poem. Thanks for commenting on it.

  2. ED penned three variants of ‘As if I asked a common Alms’: 1858 for her fascicles, 1862 for Higginson, and 1884 for a thank-you letter to a “Dear Friend”. For the 1884 letter she converted the poem to prose and merged it between her gift description and the news of the day. She also altered the last line to “And flood me with the Dawn!” to spare her friend the shock of “And shatter me with Dawn!” Twenty-six years is a lot of mileage for one poem, but it held up well.

  3. The poem just misses being in a common hymn meter. It is almost double common meter (, reading "wondering" as it is frequently pronounced, "wond'ring", except line 3 is seven syllables, not eight. I know of no hymns of the pattern, although there is one hymn pattern that is; three hymns have the pattern And if you don't like reading "wondering" as two syllables, it is also impossible, as far as I know, to find a hymn meter Of course, the point of identifying these syllable patterns for hymns is to assist in choosing music to fit the texts, so perhaps the point here is to make the text appear to follow a hymn pattern while leaving it impossible to set to extant tunes. After all, it IS possible to sing the common doxology to the tune "Old 100th", but also to "Hernanado's Hideaway".

  4. okay, thanks -- now I can't get Hernando's Hideaway out of my head -- along with images of a woman in a long-white dress ...