I rose — because He sank —
I thought it would be opposite —
But when his power dropped —
My Soul grew straight.
I cheered my fainting Prince —
I sang firm — even — Chants —
I helped his Film — with Hymn —
And when the Dews drew off
That held his Forehead stiff —
I met him —
Balm to Balm —
I told him Best — must pass
Through this low Arch of Flesh —
No Casque so brave
It spurn the Grave —
I told him Worlds I knew
Where Emperors grew —
Who recollected us
If we were true —
And so with Thews of Hymn —
And Sinew from within —
And ways I knew not that I knew — till then —
I lifted Him —
F454 (1862) 616
The poem has a triumphal yet ambiguous note. The narrator details her efforts on behalf of her “fainting Prince,” taking a surprised pride at how she “rose” to the occasion, helped him, cheered him, and finally “lifted Him” through her own spiritual “Sinew.”
First, though, she needed – rather, her Soul needed – to grow “straight” – as if it had been wandering from the straight and narrow path into twisty ways and byways. This was all occasioned “because He Sank.” Otherwise, she may have lingered on the winding paths.
What is the problem with the beloved? The narrator doesn’t specify. But he was “fainting,” his forehead was sweaty, and he lost strength. Perhaps he was dying. Indeed, he may well have died and the service the narrator tendered was to urge and lift him towards heaven.
First, though, she cheers him, and I take this to mean she re-awakened his will. She chants, firmly and evenly. The film of sweat on his brow was “helped” with “Hymn,” and when the sweat (“the Dews”) is gone, she meets him “Balm to Balm” as if the ointments with which she lovingly soothes him are answered with love, the sweetest balm. “I met him / Balm to Balm” has a sensual quality. It is not just spirit that is being rallied, not just flesh that is being soothed, but the whole person who is being loved.
She tells him everyone, even the best of us, must endure the hardships of the flesh. No knight in helmet (“Casque”), no matter how brave, can avoid the grave. She weaves tales for him. A poet, she knows “Worlds” – we saw her careening from one to another in “I felt a Funeral in my Brain.” She tells her beloved of how emperors grow in some worlds – an organic, polytheistic image. Good monarchs, these emperors will remember those who are “true."
Notice that Dickinson here is not calling on the Christian heaven. There is the rewarding of the faithful, which is certainly a Christian image (though not exclusively), but the narrator is drawing upon her imagination, her storied worlds where her mind wanders (perhaps those twisty byways).
Dickinson’s narrator presents herself as a woman bucking up her man. She sings to him, wipes his forehead, paints a picture of a better, perhaps eternal, life.
In the last stanza Dickinson gives us the lovely image of “Thews of Hymn”: the musculature that holds her together, and the word “Thews” conjures up Homeric heroes, is made of church hymns. She is rising to the occasion on spiritual muscles and sinews and on “ways I knew not that I knew.” Maddening poet. What are these secret ways? Again, there is a teasing sense of love’s ways (foreshadowed by the “Arch of Flesh” as well as the balms). Taken together with the spiritual strength and the physical ministrations, the narrator has “lifted” her beloved.
Dickinson has written before of ministering to the dying. In “I bring an unaccustomed wine” (F126) she “always bear[s] the cup” that can slake the thirst of dying “pilgrims.” In “Delayed till she had ceased to know” (F67), Dickinson bemoans having been too late to inspire a dying woman with visions of “Victory” in a palatial heaven.
But I’m tempted to read this poem as a one describing a mystical union with the dying and doubting Christ. Dickinson wrote one poem (F300) in “moaning fancy” imagining herself with young martyrs as they died – or as a saint herself. And she has written other poems previous to this that also might be read as mystical unions with Jesus. “Title divine, is mine” (F194) might be read this way. Likewise, in “Again – his voice is at the door” (F274) the gentleman caller who “never saw me – in this life” may well be Jesus (as well as doubling as an earthly love interest).
I think Dickinson well capable of layering meanings, using ambiguities to allow imagination the freest play within her poetic vision. And so I have no problems reading this poem as one where a loving woman helps a loved one in a time of need, ministers to a dying beloved man, or joins with the crucified Jesus to help him surmount the bitterness and pain of crucifixion.
Dickinson does some wonderful things with word sounds and juxtapositions throughout the poem. “Rose” and “sank” are opposites, and Dickinson uses the word “opposite” in the following line to add the image of a seesaw or pulley. “Dropped” adds a nice internal alliteration in which the “p” sounds imply a soft dropping.
“Film” with “Hymn” is a nice pairing, as are “Thews of Hymn” – which can be read as a pun on “his thews.” The homophones “Hymn” and “Him” strengthen this connection. Another slant rhyme I enjoy: “Prince” with “Chants.” The entire poem benefits from a careful attention to word choice. The more I read it, the more I find in every line to ponder.