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08 November 2011

A poor—torn heart—a tattered heart—

A poor—torn heart—a tattered heart—
That sat it down to rest—
Nor noticed that the ebbing Day
Flowed silver to the west—
Nor noticed night did soft descend—
Nor Constellation burn—
Intent upon the vision
Of latitudes unknown.

The angels—happening that way
This dusty heart espied—
Tenderly took it up from toil
And carried it to God—
There—sandals for the Barefoot—
There—gathered from the gales—
Do the blue havens by the hand
Little Nell
Philip V. Allingham
Lead the wandering Sails.
                                                        - F125 (1859)  78

This  might sound like another rather sappy death poem that Dickinson knocked off for a recently departed acquaintance, but she sent this to Sue along with a picture of Dickins’ Little Nell. Now Little Nell, famously died a young (~15) and virtuous death after heroic exertions on behalf of her failing grandfather after the two of them had been evicted from the eponymous old Curiosity Shop. I think this enclosure of a picture of the brave and noble girl puts the poem into the realm of the puckish. It'a a spoof on the poor little lass.
            The metaphors don't quite meld. We start with a “torn” and “tattered heart” as if the heart were made of fabric or paper. This "poor" heart "sat it down to rest" – which is an amusingly clever feat for a heart, particularly a tattered one. Although this heart is also seemingly capable of observing externalities such as sunset and stars, this dying one neither notices nor knows. Instead, it concentrates on “latitudes unknown” – that is, heaven. The introduction of the word "lattitudes" within the same stanza as "tattered" ought to alert us that the underlying metaphor for the heart is a sail on a small boat – an image Dickinson uses in several other poems.
            But in the next stanza the torn heart is somehow “dusty," which might be difficult out in the stormy sea. Fortunately for it, regardless of its personal hygiene, angels just happen to come by. They carry “it to God” where it gets sandals. The last three lines return to the boat metaphor. The “blue havens” or heaven take the “wandering Sails” “by the hand”  to save them from “the gales.” No, it doesn’t work. Not only would it be hard to take a sail by the hand, but the havens are taking the sails to the haven!  I suspect Emily and Sue must have had a good time laughing at Dickins' characterization of poor Little Nell. The poem reminds me of Mark Twain's spoof on Julia Moore's treacly poetry in Huckleberry Finn:

Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd.

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?

No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thickened,
'Twas not from sickness' shots.

No whooping-cough did rack his frame
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.


  1. Even with your interpretation, I think that this could still be a tender description of little nell's resurrection. You would know better than me, would Dickinson most likely write with empathy or with sarcasm?

    1. Re-reading this poem I'm surprised by my own vehemence. It might indeed be sincere. Dickinson had both the Victorian appetite for schmaltz about children -- but she also had a sharp wit and a gift for irony and even sarcasm that she was willing to wield. So I recant and say that this poem *might* be ironical, a spoof, etc. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

  2. This interpretation doesn't feel like "Emily Dickinson" to me. It's too cold and harsh. Her poems are soothing even when it's heavy it's soothing to the heart and mind which I didn't find here.

    1. mcjeeps interpretation above might be a better one. But still, Dickinson had a playful side and the inclusion of the picture when she sent the poem to Sue just struck me as sort of an inside joke between the two of them. But I was, perhaps, a bit harsh on it.

  3. The two purloined pictures that ED attached to the penciled poem copy to Susan D showed (1) a sad Little Nell sitting in a graveyard with an old man [her grandfather?] kissing her hand and (2) three angels carrying Little Nell through clouds to heaven while a fourth angel sitting beside them plays a harp. I hope ED asked her father before mutilating his copy of The Old Curiosity Shop.

    Susan K’s hope for ED’s high standards of ironic humor notwithstanding, my observations of intelligent female acquaintances hanging onto every sob of melodrama in The Bachelorettes convince me that ED suspended disbelief while reading Dicken’s tearjerker, published in 1841. She knows Dickens squeezes tears out of dry rags, but for one brief shameless moment she lets her hair down and writes this 1859 poem in response. I suspect ED might identify with Little Nell just a tiny little bit.

  4. "The last three lines return to the boat metaphor. The “blue havens” or heaven take the “wandering Sails” “by the hand” to save them from “the gales.” No, it doesn’t work. Not only would it be hard to take a sail by the hand, but the havens are taking the sails to the haven!"

    Ahem. Boat metaphor, yes, but also two lovely puns. In Stanza 2 ED says the angels carried this dusty heart to God—, "There—gathered from the gales— / Do the blue heavens by the hand / Lead the wandering Souls."

    Treacly, yes, but it warms the cockles of the unhardened heart. ED's father, Edward, loved Dickens, and that made this poem important to her. (Paragraph 2 of 9/24/22 comment above.)

  5. If this poem is satire, my wife and I missed it. That surprises me because I have a hard heart and, of all of Dickens’ novels, I have the hardest time with The Old Curiosity Shop. I was wondering about the angels and God bit. I don’t think Dickinson was an antagonistic atheist. But she seldom came so close to conventional Christian notions. The garbled metaphor-making should be or could be a tip off that the poem is satirical. But it also could be a poem about a very depressed person finding some solace. That it is from such an early period, 1858, leads me to think it is, probably, something of an inside joke.