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18 August 2013

You constituted Time —

You constituted Time —
I deemed Eternity
A Revelation of Yourself —
'Twas therefore Deity

The Absolute — removed
The Relative away —
That I unto Himself adjust
My slow idolatry —
                                                             F488 (1862)  J765

For a poet classified as "lyric" by many scholars, Dickinson can be extremely abstract. This poem is full of abstract nouns: Time, Eternity, Revelation, Absolute, Relative, Deity, and idolatry. That's almost one per line! I wonder if part of her fluency with the abstract didn't begin as she grew up with the legal language of a lawyer father and a brother studying to become a lawyer, as well as within a religion characterized by contracts.
       The poem is divided into two considerations of worship. The first stanza is nostalgic: the poet looks back at the awe-struck love she once had for someone. "You constituted Time," she writes, and what better way is there to say that someone filled your life, that your days and weeks and even minutes were tolled according to the beloved's actions, that to be with the beloved was to be in a state that transcends time – which Dickinson denotes "Eternity." The beloved was her deity.
       The key word of the poem comes in the second stanza where the poet must "adjust" her "idolatry" to the "Absolute." The "Deity" of the first stanza is not the "Himself" of the second. As Absolute, he came to overshadow – he "removed" – the "Relative" deity worshipped in the poet's "slow" and inexperienced youth. The first experience was powerful and consuming, but the beloved was still in the class of mortals and could be compared to others. The poet's love for this mortal, dependent as it must be on external and internal variables, functions as a precursor to what she experiences with the Absolute.
Georgia O'Keefe, Blue Flower, 1918
  This Absolute focuses the poet's attention on himself in order that she adjust her deficient or even defective idolatry of the rival deity. While this may be read as purposeful, I think Dickinson may have meant that just the awareness of the Absolute supplanted her worship of the beloved mortal. And while it is easy to think that Dickinson is contrasting the way she felt about a man or woman with how she came to feel about God, it is also easy to read the poem as a mature love supplanting an earlier love. Where I grew up we called these intense early loves "puppy love." Such love teaches us what it means to open up to another, to be flooded with desire and awe, and to be transported to that timeless zone where love abides.
       It is also easy to focus on that word "adjust" as a signal that the former love was for Sue – her dear and passionately loved friend, her neighbour, and her sister in law. Such a forbidden love would, by the mores of the day, need adjustment.
In "Just Once! Oh least Request!" (F478), Dickinson writes a droll poem to Samuel Bowles, a man many scholars believe Dickinson deeply loved, addressing him playfully as "Sweet Deity" and asking "Adamant," a "God of Flint," if he wouldn't accept a barrel of apples. Despite its light tone, I use this poem as an example of a human Absolute because it was written in the same period of time (if Franklin's assessment of chronology is correct). That being said, however, the poem just prior to that, "He fumbles at your Soul" (F477) – is a poem which I take to be about the almost brutal power of a male God.
       As usual, Dickinson's poetry defies easy explication.

The poem has a simple and regular construction: four-line stanzas in a modified ballad format. Lines A, B, and D are in iambic trimeter; while C is tetrameter. Dickinson uses slant rhymes for B and D lines. I particularly like that three of those rhyming words rhyme with each other – and are abstract nouns: Eternity, Deity, idolatry.


  1. A fine analysis of a difficult poem. Thanks.

  2. There is yet another way of reading that last stanza--I think:

    The Absolute — removed (husband removed from picture--or on trip)
    The Relative away — (her brother away; Sue's husband away)
    That I unto Himself adjust (she tries to fill the emotional void filled with the brother away--and Sue's husband away)
    My slow idolatry — (this changes their relationship dynamic)

    Also, there is two ways to take the punctuation and grammar of this last stanza.

    The Absolute - removed (don't think of this stuff absolutely)
    The relative - away (also it's not about being relative or absolute or anything like that philosophical mumbo jumbo)
    That I unto Himself adjust
    My slow idolaty (my feelings just are--I take from them from what I will--they are for someone else, and slowly, slowly change with time).

    Or--these feelings are absolute--remove the relative away--the only thing that adjusts is my previous deficiency in love.

  3. The entire poem is remarkable from many different standpoints: the individual of ED's affection is time itself--is time relative or absolute (she's introducing the theory of relativity into the mix--before Einstein had a chance to write his papers on special relativity--okay, of course, I'm not saying she's the founder of this revolutionary/radical physics concept--but that it rather has shades of such a perspective.

    And, the philosophy of absolute and relative in the second stanza are quite cool. Her love is unconditional (absolute), but placed in context at the same time (relative--not to an invidual--but maybe by passage of time). That she is capable of concisely representing these conflicting and cohesive thoughts in just 14 words in the second stanza is really quite something.

  4. "but that it rather has shades of such a perspective"==ED almost thinks of nature/physics from such a perspective (maybe)...