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15 September 2011

This heart that broke so long—

This heart that broke so long—
These feet that never flagged—
This faith that watched for star in vain,
Give gently to the dead—

Hound cannot overtake the Hare
That fluttered panting, here,
Nor any schoolboy rob the nest
Tenderness builded there.
                                                - F 83 (1859)

Like F 81, this poem paints a dreary and pathetic picture of a dead woman. It feels like a practice piece, as if Dickinson had tired of reading cheesy funeral poems and thought, “I can knock one of these out in half the time and it would be twice as good.” Nonetheless, it isn’t interesting reading. We have a broken-hearted but hard-working person of great faith. Alas, the faith was ‘in vain’ as the hoped-for star (some hoped-for event? The Second Coming?) never came. However, for all the deprivations and disappointments, at least the deathbed experience was free from harm. The Hound couldn’t hurt the little fluttering and panting hare there, nor could nasty little boys cause any harm.
            The poem is written in standard hymn form: 4-line stanzas of alternating tetrameter and trimeter Fairly loose slant rhymes are used: “flagged” / “Dead”; “here” / “there”. 


  1. For an alternate take...

    This one knocked my head off. I see your reading and agree that taken just as a death poem, it comes off as dourly defeatest. But I read it the first time though in the lasting embrace of the tender nest with which it ends. The first line, "The heart that broke so long" -What a way of saying...the love that died so slowly. Taking the instant snap of the break and making it ring for a lifetime, the break from innocence to experience. And the beautifully compassionate line about giving it gently to the dead, all that broken faith, let it gently, in mourning, go. Like letting go at the end of "After Great Pain."

    And that is beautiful all by itself, but then the turnaround; that frail hare, fluttered panting (and here you can't help but think of Keats' hare) who is forever safe HERE. In the grave, yes, but also, in the moment, that moment of life at its most vibratingly and excitingly alive, and then, at the end of the poem, circling back to the beginning, the being born, as in the tenderest nest. This is both the conception of life-after-death and life itself in one image. And in that life-affirming image (which still includes the hint of fear in that panting) there is a real transcendence.

    Not said elegantly, but hopefully gets another reading across.

    1. Wow, I was really down on this poem!! Well, back when I started I intended to just read a poem, ponder it, and write up my response. After a couple hundred poems, though, my readings deepened and I had more reference books, bookmarks, etc.

      Your reading is far, far superior. thank you for it! (and beautifully expressed)

  2. Your ambitious project has really been helpful in my own deeper understanding of the poems, so thank you! You and Slowlander and Owlcation. (All, somehow, with "owl" in the title. Go figure.) But yours is the most consistently on target for me. And even with this poem, I have to say that I'm persuaded that this is perhaps less about the "moment" than I want it to be, and more, perhaps, about death being a safe haven, which IS kind of lame if so. This "heart" is admirable in never flagging, but then what's the connection between dogged pursuit of the star, and running from the dogs? It doesn't quite track somehow. Maybe I was taken in by the pure comfort of the end, without seeing that getting there was, perhaps, questionable.

    But Emily so often eludes me, so maybe there is a connection, a connection between running from and running to. Or at least a very fine line.

    I do think in later poems Emily does get to this beautiful idea of "eternity" being in the moment. "Forever is composed of nows" and a favorite..

    The Life we have is very great.
    The Life that we shall see
    Surpasses it, we know, because
    It is Infinity.
    But when all Space has been beheld
    And all Dominion shown
    The smallest Human Heart's extent
    Reduces it to none.

  3. The master of ambiguity surpassed herself in 1859 with ‘This heart that broke so long’. Here’s some history that helps explain the poem:

    The first documented mention of a friendship between ED and Susan Gilbert is an 1850 letter to Susan from ED's brother, Austin, in which he remarks that on the previous Thanksgiving Emily and her sister, Lavinia, had invited Susan's family “into the circle which had for two or three years been gradually forming”. He must mean since 1848 because ED attended Holyoake Female Seminary August 1847 – May 1848. Susan, orphaned at 11, lived in Amherst with a married older sister. Both Susan and Emily turned 20 in December 1850 and shared poetic aspirations. Their friendship gradually morphed from poetry to romantic, sexual love that continued until ED’s death in 1886.

    In 1851 Susan abruptly took a job in Baltimore teaching high school mathematics, which was excruciating for ED. In a letter to Susan, May 1852, a month before Susan’s return from Baltimore, ED gushed, perhaps ending literally, “These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it.” A few days before Susan’s arrival, ED was beside herself, “And now how soon I shall have you, shall hold you in my arms; you will forgive the tears, Susie, they are so glad to come that it is not in my heart to reprove them and send them home.” Three years later, January 1855, ED again professed her love, perhaps reminding Susan of their first consummation, “I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the evergreens”.

    Susan Gilbert and Austin Dickinson married in July 1856, a marriage encouraged by ED’s matchmaking with both Susan and Austin in hopes of keeping Susan nearby. For several years Susan struggled to make her traditional marriage succeed, but her own inclinations and ED’s near daily delivery of poems and letters to her doorstep eventually prevailed. Susan hints at her difficulties in a letter to ED dated early 1860s, “Private. —I have intended to write you, Emily, today but the quiet has not been mine. I send you this, lest I should seem to have turned away from a kiss – If you have suffered this past summer, I am sorry!. — I, Emily, bear a sorrow that I never uncover – If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we! When I can, I shall write. —. Sue” The last three sentences speak of something that Sue is hiding, something she can’t talk about. We can only wonder why Susan “sings” when she feels a marital “thorn” against her “breast”.

    Much later, in an 1877 letter-poem, ED proclaims,

    “To own a Susan of my own
    Is of itself a Bliss —
    Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
    Continue me in this!”

  4. Apparently, ED was happy with the ensuing arrangement, but Austin was not. However, he remained married to Susan, began a relationship with Mabel Todd, 20 years his junior, and finished his life writing satisfied entries in his journal. ‘This heart that broke so long’ was composed in 1859, three years after Susan and Austin married.
    Stanza 1 tells us that ED has missed her intimacy with Susan for a long time. Despite her faithful and near-daily trudging the well-worn 100-yard path to Susan’s front steps to deliver letters and poems, ED has watched in vain for some sign that they might regain their close relationship. In a moment of despair, ED gives in to pessimism, saying she might as well be dead.

    Lines 1-2 of Stanza 2, “Hound cannot overtake the Hare / That fluttered panting, here”, remind Susan of an outdoor game they played in ED’s yard (“here”), with ED as Hound and Susan as Hare. The penultimate word “panting” seems somewhat suggestive. The ‘Hound and the Hare’, an Aesop fable dating from 500 BC, may have inspired the game ‘Hound and Hare’ in which “The fastest runner is chosen as ‘hound’, and the rest of the players are ‘rabbits’. The rabbits get a head-start around the field. Once they get a lead, the hound is loosed by yelling “GET THOSE RABBITS”. The hound tries to pass as many rabbits as possible in one lap. Anyone who doesn’t get caught (passed) becomes the hound.” (The Games Manual, 2019,

    Lines 3-4, “Nor any schoolboy rob the nest / Tenderness builded there”, suggest a second game they may have played, “Rob the Nest”, this time in Susan’s yard (“there”), The Games Manual explains: “Place a number of beanbags or balls (eggs) in the centre of a defined space. Form teams of players and assign numbers (1, 2, 3, ...). On “GO”, the first person from each team runs to the centre, takes an “egg”, throws it back to the team, runs back to his/her team line, and tags the next person. This continues until all the beanbags (the eggs) are gone from the centre (the nest) and the team with the most eggs is the winner.” Of course, the word “nest” may also be a double entendre. Perhaps a somewhat gruesome Aesop fable, ‘The Eagle and the Fox”, inspired this game.

    1. Thanks for all this contextual info, Larry -- the games in particular!