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03 July 2013

That first Day, when you praised Me, Sweet,

That first Day, when you praised Me, Sweet,
And said that I was strong —
And could be mighty, if I liked —
That Day — the Days among —

Glows Central — like a Jewel
Between Diverging Golds —
The Minor One — that gleamed behind —
And Vaster — of the World's.

                                                                           F470 (1862)  J659

The opening lines of this love poem sound quite contemporary to me in their casual directness. The poet, in a nostalgic mood, talks to a beloved, recounting the deep compliment that changed her life. As readers, we overhear the conversation.
          It was a powerful affirmation: Dickinson had it in her power to be "mighty" if she chose to. This encouragement may have been a crucial spark in Dickinson's dedication to her art. In "A solemn thing – it was – I said," her dedication is depicted as a consecration:
A solemn thing—it was—I said— 
A woman—white—to be – 
And wear—if God should count me fit – 
Her blameless mystery –

A hallowed thing—to drop a life
Into the purple well – 
Too plummetless—that it return – 
 Margaret Ellis
          As the poet reflects upon this consecration, the day of her beloved's affirmation "Glows Central – like  a Jewel." This jewel moment was the day of change. Before it, stretched the "Minor" road of simple joys and hopes, the activities typical of a New England maiden. After the consecration, however, the poet's path became the gold of the "Vaster" world – and by this, I think Dickinson means the cosmos.
          I am reminded of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," where he, too, recounts his jewel moment:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


  1. A difference between Dickinson's jewel-like day and Frost's day of decision is that Dickinson's has a value that has already been established: "That first day ... glows central."

    The significance of Frost's decision is by no means clear. The roads are not even demonstrably different:
    the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,
    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.

    The significance is all the future: "I SHALL be telling with a sigh." He isn't saying it yet. He knows himself: he is the kind that will glorify his past experiences, with or without justification.

    Dickinson is more certain of the established value of her day. So it seems to me anyway.

    1. While it seems at first that Frost seemed to idly decide which path to take, there were significant, if unconscious, factors at play. While he admits that "the passing there / Had worn them really about the same," his first impression was that the path he chose had "the better claim / Because was grassy and wanted wear".

      In the final stanza he denotes the path he chose as "the one less traveled by," as if confirming the validity of that first impression.

      And while he frames this stanza as something he will say in the future, in a sense, the future begins with the poem. As he writes, he is looking back at that decision moment. He is also reflecting that this poem, written with its sigh of the unknown path or the path almost not taken, will still be read "ages and ages hence" – a phrase that indicates future generations rather than a few decades. (Sometimes I think it means the poet is imagining justifying his life to some cosmic Judge.)

      I've also wondered about what the two paths represent. Poetry / non-Poetry? "Traditional" poetry / Modernist poetry? I haven't read much critical lit on Frost.

  2. We all have clear memories of moments in our life when someone said a kind word. That moment stays stuck, remembered now and then, dies with us. ED recalls such a day, and, absent “Sweet”, my guess would be that “someone” was Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853):

    “My earliest friend wrote me the week before he died “If I live, I will go to Amherst – if I die, I certainly will.” Newton died of tuberculosis on March 24, 1853, age 32.

    “– Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson, spring 1876 (L457)

    “My earliest friend,” “My dying Tutor” (L265), “The first of my own friends” (L110), “a gentle, yet grave Preceptor” (L153) “an elder brother, loved indeed very much” (L153) – these were all phrases Emily Dickinson employed in speaking of Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young man whose effect upon her development as a poet was early and profound, and to whom she long paid tribute.

    “Newton, as she called him, came to Amherst in the fall of 1847 [ED was 16], a twenty-six-year-old aspiring law student desiring to study for two years in the recently formed partnership office of Dickinson and Bowdoin. Like other such law students of Edward Dickinson’s over the years, Newton became a familiar presence in the Dickinson household, befriending the Dickinson children and often partaking of family meals. Emily Dickinson met him just as she enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and she became acquainted with his love of books during several weeks the following March that she was home nursing a severe cold. She later wrote: “Mr. Newton became to me a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand or beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen” (L153).”

    Logical, yes, “Sweet”, no. That “someone” had to be Susan Gilbert Dickinson.