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15 July 2013

You love the Lord — you cannot see —

You love the Lord — you cannot see —
You write Him — every day —
A little note — when you awake —
And further in the Day.

An Ample Letter — How you miss —

And would delight to see —
But then His House — is but a Step —
And Mine's — in Heaven — You see.
                                                                                       F474 (1862)  J487

David Preest suggests this poem is about missing Jesus, the little notes the poet writes him being her poems. Jesus's "House" is the step of death away, in this interpretation, and the poet would have a house in Heaven when she dies. I guess this fits: she is whimsically asking herself why she bothers writing the Lord these letters when all she has to do is die to be with him always. Nonetheless, this interpretation seems unsatisfactory to me. There is the business of the "Ample Letter" rather than the short and highly abstract poems Dickinson wrote. The specificity of the "How you miss" and "would delight to see" also argue against her poems being letters to Jesus.

         I think, rather, that Dickinson was writing about an earthly Lord – a gentleman who is never or rarely seen but loved very much anyway. The poet writes him a little note when she wakes up and then a nice long letter later in the day. The crux of the poem comes when she  confesses that the Lord lives "but a Step" away. Why then, if it would be such a delight to see him, does the poet not arrange to do so? Why write if she might simply walk over and knock on the door or meet at social events?
         Dickinson provides the answer: her home is in heaven. She might love the Lord (and it is tempting here to think she was indulging in a bit of word play and referring to Judge Otis Lord, a suitor and perhaps lover later in her life*), but she would rather write him letters than go the step to his house. Her loyalties belong elsewhere – to poetry, perhaps; to the pursuit of truth and an understanding of Circumference. No, she will stay on her father's premises in her white dress and maintain her consecration to poetry.
Judge Otis Lord, later
in his distinguished life

         I also like to think of the first line as standing alone as an aphorism, something along the lines of "absence makes the heart grow fonder." The rest of the poem expands upon that insight. Better the Lord stay in his house, or at least that the poet not venture there. After all, familiarity breeds contempt!

The two stanzas are written in standard hymn or ballad form. The regularity of the meter and rhyme lighten the tone of the poem. It trips lightly off the tongue. The effect is heightened by Dickinson's use of exact rhymes for the rhyming lines: "day" and "Day" in the first stanza, and a repeated "see" in the second. That "see" also ends the first line of the poem. When it pops up as the last word of the last line, it becomes a bit of drollery.

         There is an odd change of person and stance in that last line as well. Until then the poem is written in second person: the poet describes the thoughts and actions of an abstract "You" who we are meant to interpret as the poet herself. The last line, however, switches to first person. That "Mine" should have been "Yours" for consistency's sake. The "You" in that line is now the audience: the reader as confidante. The poet has confided a droll secret to the reader.
         I can't say that this maneuver adds anything to the poem except a bit of whimsy, closing the poem with "You see" after opening it with "you cannot see." If anything, the line does reinforce the poet's claim that her house is in heaven. She is serious about that, so serious that she changes POV to make us stop and take note.

* In A Summer of Hummingbirds, Christopher Benfey suggests "that the attraction [between Emily Dickinson and her father's best friend, Judge Otis Lord] went back to the summer of 1862, when Lord came to Amherst as commencement speaker. ("Emily's Secret Love," Lyndall Gordon,, 20 June 2010)


  1. Your reading is the better one, as far as I am concerned. The poem might have been sent in a letter -- or maybe was simply for ED herself -- like an entry in a diary.

    You make a nice observation of the parallel between "you cannot see" and "you see".

    Closing of the poem with "you see" also imparts a very informal, conversational tone. In this way, it is a lot like ED's use of the words "Let me think -- I'm sure -- That this was all" in the last poem.

    1. Thanks. I was just thinking about how many of Dickinson's poems are in 2nd person. I wonder if there is any literature on it. Sometimes, as here, the reader is addressed casually. Sometimes she writes in the imperative. I wonder if that is true for other Victorian women poets.

  2. I wonder if the speaker is dead and writing to You, the living, as she herself might have received such a letter when she were alive. We don't know this fact until the last two lines.

  3. The Otis Lord explanation makes perfect sense and her teasing tone is consistent with her flirtatious correspondences. I fantasized for a moment, though, because of the changing pronouns, that this might be actually TO someone whose fealty she was gently questioning as misplaced - like sue’s unquestioning conformity to Austin’s “lordship.” Or society’s “lordship” for that matter, which is certainly found “but a step away.” What a good ironic little burn it would make!