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12 January 2013

Although I put away his life—

Although I put away his life—
An Ornament too grand
For Forehead low as mine, to wear,
This might have been the Hand

That sowed the flower, he preferred—
Or smoothed a homely pain,
Or pushed the pebble from his path—
Or played his chosen tune—

On Lute the least—the latest—
But just his Ear could know
That whatsoe'er delighted it,
I never would let go—

The foot to bear his errand—
A little Boot I know—
Would leap abroad like Antelope—
With just the grant to do—

His weariest Commandment—
A sweeter to obey,
Than "Hide and Seek"—
Or skip to Flutes—
Or all Day, chase the Bee—

Your Servant, Sir, will weary—
The Surgeon, will not come—
The World, will have its own—to do—
The Dust, will vex your Fame—

The Cold will force your tightest door
Some February Day,
But say my apron bring the sticks
To make your Cottage gay—

That I may take that promise
To Paradise, with me—
To teach the Angels, avarice,
You, Sir, taught first—to me. 

                                                                        F405 (1862)  J366 

Dickinson indulges herself in a bit of house-wifely fantasy. The daydream goes like this: I turned away from a possible marriage with a great man because I was too lowly. But imagine, my poor little hand could have been planting his favorite flowers or removing pebbles from his path, and playing the lute for him. I'd do his errands and his bidding. It would be better than playing games or chasing bees or dancing. 
          The games and skipping to music are childish images. The poet isn't writing as a mature woman but as a young romantic girl. 
The 1950s were a great time for
the romance of the housewife.

          The fantasy turns a bit morbid towards the end. The master's servant will eventually become old and tired. As "Sir" gets old and infirm himself, the doctor rarely comes by to see him. The world moves on to other people and issues, while fame and reputation begin to pass him by. One day "The Cold will force [his] tightest door" and he will die. But if Sir will promise that the speaker can at least and at last serve him by bringing flowering branches to decorate his grave, his "Cottage," she could die happily. She would be so hungry to serve him even in this way that the angels would learn "avarice." While today we think of "avarice" as meaning insatiable greed, in Dickinson's time the word had some positive connotations. In this context it probably means the desire to keep something valuable to herself and be vigilant over it in a watchful and protective way.
          I don't think this poem tops anybody's list of Dickinson's best work. It would be a very nice poem if it were actually written by some young and love-struck girl rather than from a world-class poet. However, lurking in the poem's saccharine sentiment may be a grand dose of irony. Perhaps Dickinson wrote this as the same sort of parody that infuses F125, "A poor--torn heart--a tattered heart." In that poem Dickinson pens a send-up of Charles Dickens' Little Nell. Here she may be mocking the love-sick maiden.


  1. If this is a little girl it is a little girl with a magnificent ambition, to teach the angels. I can't help but think she is using the conceit of "him " to describe what life she has given up in her pursuit if "that promise" which she can take to Paradise. Everything in life is impermanent; I think she is banking on the immortality of her poetry, "the stcks to make the cottage gay."

    1. Now that I re-read the poem I think my commentary was too harsh. There is a wonderful, womanly charm in the homely duties of house and hearth and attendance on a loved one -- particularly when the loved one is a great man. And Dickinson did serve her father (and mother). This sort of service on behalf of matrimonial-type love would be much more fulfilling!

      I can't see the poem as a way of talking about her perceptions of the importance of her own work. Here, I think, she is looking at what, as you say, she has given up.

  2. Emily Dickinson's capacity to love was enormous and she expresses it in so many ways in her poetry. But the irony is that she seemed to relish it as that heaven that recedes just beyond our grasp. I am not convinced at all that she would have been happy to have served a master, but boy she seemed to know, appreciate and express romantic love more than anyone of us. "To comprehend a nectar requires sorest need".

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  4. "Perhaps Dickinson wrote [‘Although I put away his life’] as the same sort of parody that infuses 'A poor--torn heart--a tattered heart.' (F125)”. I think ED was dead serious in this poem.

    The dreamy childish fantasyland of ‘Although I put away his life’ stems from ED’s emotional conflation of father figures, older male mentors, and male master-lovers. Psychiatrist John Cody had a 538-page field day guessing why (Cody, 1979, ‘After Great Pain’).

    ED Lexicon defines “avarice” figuratively as “emotional attachment, a reluctance to let someone go”. ED had to let Charles Wadsworth go in this life, but in Paradise where they, at least in her mind, agreed to marry, she’s going to “teach the Angels, avarice” as he “taught first – to me”.

    Talk about self-confidence.