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14 October 2012

He touched me, so I live to know


He touched me, so I live to know
That such a day, permitted so,
I groped upon his breast –

It was a boundless place to me
And silenced, as the awful Sea
Puts minor streams to rest.

And now, I'm different from before,
As if I breathed superior air—
Or brushed a Royal Gown—
My feet, too, that had wandered so—
My Gypsy face—transfigured now—
To tenderer Renown—

Into this Port, if I might come,
Rebecca, to Jerusalem,
Would not so ravished turn—
Nor Persian, baffled at her shrine
Lift such a Crucifixial sign
To her imperial Sun.
                                                                                          F349 (1862)  506

Once you remember that this passionate love poem written by a proper (spinster) woman in Puritan-ish New England of 1862, you understand why Dickinson kept so many of her poems secret—and why the uncensored versions took decades to emerge after Dickenson’s death. The speaker in this poem begins almost breathlessly. She and her lover have embraced, and this experience has transfigured her. She likens her passion in the final stanza to an almost religious level.
            It’s hard to imagine a simpler and more direct opening than “He touched me.” It’s both confessional and wondering. The second line tells us that this was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence: the day when this happened, when this embrace was “permitted” will be something she will remember all her life. We know there was passion for it wasn’t a chaste embrace, but one where she “groped upon his breast,” and here I picture her clutching him as if she could not get enough.
            She was over-awed by the experience. Within his embrace (“a boundless place” as if it were all emcompassing) she was silenced, just as a small stream is silenced as it is embraced by the “awful [awe-full] Sea.” She doesn’t say how her lover responded. This poem is all about the difference this encounter made in the speaker’s life. She is “different from before” now as if she had breathed heavenly air or touched a monarch. Even her face is transfigured into something more tender and loveable.

            Dickinson concludes the poem by reflecting on the day and the embrace as if it were a religious experience. If she could come again into the haven, the “Port” that is her beloved, she would be even more “ravished” or joyful than Rebecca from the biblical book of Genesis (ch. 24). Rebecca was a young woman selected to be the wife of Isaac, the young son of Abraham. She had to travel many days to reach and marry him, no doubt in great anticipation of his reputed goodness, his wealth and position—and her own, as his wife—and also in prayerful joy at being reportedly chosen by God. This journey towards Jerusalem must have been  exciting for her. Isaac was waiting for the caravan to return with a bride, and so as soon as he saw the camels, he ran out into the road to meet them. Rebecca, as shy and proper as Dickinson, covered herself with a veil. That story ends happily, for Isaac loved Rebecca and she lived a long and fruitful life.
Mithras, Persian sun god--looking a lot
like the Statue of Liberty!
            The second religious image is a little more difficult. Who is the “Persian, baffled at her shrine”? And why would she lift a crucifix to “her imperial Sun”? One interpretation that a few scholars have suggested is that the Persian is Lalla Rookh, a young princess who travels from Delhi to Cashmere to meet her betrothed. Along the way she falls in love with a poet story teller who fortunately turns out to be the bridegroom in disguise. This interpretation has the benefit of offering a parallel with Rebecca’s journey, but suffers from involving an Indian rather than a Persian, as well as not addressing the idea of the Sun. Instead, I suggest that the Persian is a woman praying at a Mithraic shrine. Mithra was worshipped for hundreds of years as a sun god, beginning in India and Persia but ultimately spreading throughout the Roman Empire. Imagine the woman praying in her ordinary way and then suddenly seeing her sun god in front of her. She raises a sacred token in awe. That token would look much like the cross Dickinson might have worn, as the tau cross was a symbol of Mithras (as well as Tammuz, the Sumerian sun god).
            The poem’s speaker, then, is claiming she would be so moved, so ravished, to take port once again in her lover’s arms that she would exceed Rebecca’s joy and the Persian woman’s amazed reverence in the presence of her god.

            Most of the imagery in this poem has been seen in earlier poems. The special day when the two lovers shared their love and exchanged crucifixes was described in “There came a Day—at Summer's full” (F325) where “Each was to each—the sealed church, / Permitted to commune this—time—,” just as the lovers in this poem have their glorious “permitted” day. At the end of their allotted time, “when all the time had failed— / Without external sound— / Each—bound the other’s Crucifix— / We gave no other Bond.” The bond was that after death they would have a “new marriage” that would be an eternal one.
            The idea that the loved man is a sun god, or at least that the sun represents the loved man was explored in “The Daisy follows soft the Sun” where the little daisy “Sits shyly” at the sun’s feet at night, braving his irritation, in hopes of “Night’s possibility.” In “The Sun—just touched the Morning,” Dickinson describes a morning so excited about having been touched by the sun that she “felt herself supremer— / A Raised—Ethereal Thing!” just as in the current poem the speaker feels uplifted by the touch of her beloved.
Dickinson, ultimately, would be the Sea
and any beloved only a small stream--although
she thought it the reverse.
            The speaker’s sense of being silenced as she joins her small stream to her beloved’s greater Sea is also seen in “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea— / Forgets her own locality— / As I, in Thee” (F255) The same notion is expressed in  “My River runs to thee” (F219) and “Least Rivers—docile to some sea” (F206). This last poem was part of a letter to Samuel Bowles. It is very likely that Bowles was the beloved referred to here and that he was also the “Master” she wrote three very passionate (and probably unposted) letters to.

            Structurally, the poem is written in three six-line stanzas, although the first one is separated in two parts for emphasis. The first stanza tells the reader about the day of the embrace and what it was like. The second describes the speaker’s transfiguration, and the third the joy she expects when she finally comes to the Port that is her beloved—probably in the eternal marriage she alluded to in “There came a day” (as well as in “Title divine, is mine”).
            Each stanza has two rhyming iambic tetrameter lines followed by an iambic trimeter line—both of which rhyme. The result is a very tightly knit poem. The caesuras indicated by commas and dashes give a very spoken quality to the poem as if the poet is recounting something wistfully to the reader, something she has said and thought many times before. “He touched me…” –a memory never to be forgotten.

2 comments:

  1. This is very helpful, thanks ^^

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  2. So she uses her love for Bowles as the force by which she can leap from the passion of human love to her real subject: love of god and how it transforms her beyond herself (again and again). It amazes me to read how absolutely unabashed she is in expressing and embodying this all-consuming love. I wonder if her heart in her poems would have been less exposed had she sought a wider audience.

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