'Twas an everyday affair –
Long ago as Christ and Peter –
"Warmed them" at the "Temple fire."
"Thou wert with him" – quoth "the Damsel"?
"No" – said Peter, 'twasn't me –
Jesus merely "looked" at Peter –
Could I do aught else – to Thee?
F232 (1861) 203
Dickinson compares something that clearly felt like betrayal to her to Christ’s betrayal by Peter the night Christ was arrested. Earlier, Jesus had prophesied that Peter would “thrice deny that thou knowest me” before morning, and Peter had earnestly sworn he would never do so. After the arrest, he followed “afar off,” finally catching up with the arrest party at the house of the High Priest where Jesus had been taken. There he sat by a fire within sight of Jesus. Sure enough, three people each identified him as a disciple, and three times Peter denied it categorically: “I know him not” (Luke 22). The third time this happened, Jesus turned and looked at him. He said nothing and no gestures are mentioned. Exactly what the look was – sorrow, anger, hurt – we don’t know. It seems likely, though, that it was sorrow and, Dickinson implies, forgiveness – or at least acceptance.
Dickinson relocates the scene to the Temple, perhaps for brevity’s sake. She also omits the end of the story where Peter “wept bitterly.” The story, though, would have been thoroughly familiar to readers of her day and still is to churchgoers and even to anyone who ever watched a play (or the movie) about that night.
Although this is a powerful story of cowardly denial of a beloved master, the poet brings it up ever so casually. “’Twas an everyday affair,” she writes. “Long ago….” You can imagine a friend or former lover approaching and asking if he could ever be forgiven. No problem, you say, after all, Jesus didn’t castigate Peter; he simply “looked” at him. And if Jesus were so accepting of that failure of courage and devotion, how could I chastise you? It’s a bit of a guilt trip: she may be withholding a bit of graciousness by comparing the forgetful guy to Peter. But then, we don’t know what was forgotten so long ago. I suspect it was something very important at the time.
The first stanza refers to the forgetful person as “He” while in the second she addresses him directly as “Thee” – a form of “you” that implies friendship, at least. The shift denotes the forgiveness. What is left unsaid is whether or not the forgiven one, like Peter, shows complete remorse.