I shall not fear mistake –
I shall not cheated wake –
Some grinning morn –
To find the Sunrise left –
And Orchards – unbereft –
And Dollie – gone!
I need not start – you're sure –
That night will never be –
When frightened – home to Thee I run –
To find the windows dark –
And no more Dollie – mark –
Be sure you're sure – you know –
I'll bear it better now –
If you'll just tell me so –
Than when – a little dull Balm grown –
Over this pain of mine –
You sting – again!
F218 (1861) 156
In its expression of fearful insecurity in love, the poem mentions two kinds of pain. The first is the dull ache of dread. The narrator fears that the love object, Dollie, doesn’t truly love her despite Dollie’s implied claim to the contrary. This fear causes an anticipatory pain that one “grinning morn” the “Sunrise” – or Dollie – will be gone, or that some night when the narrator needs Dollie, she won’t be there. The “windows dark” seem to indicate that Dollie might be gone for good.
|Some night the house might be|
The second pain would be worse, for it would be the “sting” of betrayal. Dollie might insist that she surely loves the narrator. This loving assurance provides a “Balm” – a soothing ointment that provides a pleasant relief from the pain of insecurity. But should Dollie “Sting – again” the underlying pain would be much worse. Stings offer a sharp, acute pain, whereas insecurity is a chronic pain. Betrayal would cause the first and increase the second. “Just tell me so” now, the poet writes, and save me that grief.
In “Come slowly—Eden!” (F205) Dickinson writes of a bee losing itself in Balm as a metaphor for sexual completion. This imagery is twisted in this poem. Here the Balm is false reassurance and Bee doesn’t hum around the chamber of its beloved flower but rather stings.
To take the poem from the general to the personal, “Dollie” was a pet name for Sue, Dickinson’s sister-in-law, object of her very intense desire (possible romantic, possibly physical, possibly just intense love). Their relationship had its roots in an extremely warm youthful friendship, adoring on Dickinson’s part. Imagine how complicated this became when Sue married Dickinson’s brother Austin! And then the marriage started going south.
But tensions between the two women were growing. It isn’t hard to imagine Sue, a mother, wife, and social figure, trying to disentangle herself from whatever form her youthful affair with Emily Dickinson took. Dickinson on her part was becoming disenchanted with Sue’s high-society ways and her perceived ‘neglect’ of Dickinson.
Sue may not have read this poem while Dickinson was alive, although she was a recipient of hundreds of others. It would be like spilling your heart out in an email and although it felt good to do it you ultimately decide not to hit the “send” button.
But Richard Sewall notes in his biography of Dickinson that sometime in the 1860s Emily stopped visiting Sue and Austin’s house, The Evergreens. She stayed away for 15 years. Only 300 feet separated their two doors.