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24 March 2015

Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —

Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —
Your Vision — was in June —
And when Your little Lifetime failed,
I wearied — too — of mine —

And overtaken in the Dark —
Where You had put me down —
By Some one carrying a Light —
I — too — received the Sign.

'Tis true — Our Futures different lay —
Your Cottage — faced the sun —
While Oceans — and the North must be —
On every side of mine

'Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,
For mine — in Frosts — was sown —
And yet, one Summer, we were Queens —
But You — were crowned in June —
                                                                                    F596 (1863)  J631

In this nostalgic poem, Dickinson addresses an old friend. Although they were both wed in the same long-ago summer, the friend married first. Not long afterwards the poem's speaker also "received the Sign". Alas, while the friend seems to be living a warm and fertile life, the speakers' relationship seems cold and sterile.
            The poem is written in standard ballad form and begins as colloquially as an old song – "Ourselves were wed one summer – dear –". The speaker refers to her friend's wedding as her "Vision" when her "little Lifetime failed". The Dickinson Lexicon points readers to Revelation 21.2 and 21.9 as likening the wedding to that of the apostle John's vision of the "new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." Dickinson is likely thinking here of Sue, her brother's wife and her own best friend from youth, and recalling this union as a glorious and transformative event.
            The passage marks marriage as when childhood, her friend's "little Lifetime", ends. Dickinson says "failed" as if the dreams and innocence of childhood were stretched too far. The end of the "little Lifetime" would also be the end of the special relationship between Emily Dickinson and Sue as Sue takes on her new role.
Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
            As a consequence, the speaker wearied of her own childhood. Her transition found her in a Dark place where, Dickinson writes, "You had put me down", as if Sue's friendship had carried her and lighted her life up until this juncture. Fortunately, someone enters this dark void, "carrying a Light". Just as light transfigures dark, so this "some one" must have brought not only love but enlightenment.
Dickinson marks the distinction between the two friends' experiences very precisely. The friend receives the "crown" of matrimony; the speaker receives the "Sign". This language takes us back to "Title divine, is mind" where the speaker announces she has become "The Wife without the Sign", and is "Royal, all but the Crown". But in this poem the Sign is hers. She doesn't have to be without it.
And yet it seems to bring no fulfilment. There's a wistfulness in how the speaker compares their subsequent lives. The friend's cottage faces the sun, surely a symbol for a life either blessed or brightly lived. The speaker's abode, however is bordered by oceans and "the North" as if it were in some Arctic or Antarctic isolation – a cold, inapproachable land far beneath the sun's noon.
It is also true, the speaker continues, that the friend's garden bloomed first. Her own, after all, had been sown in Frosts. Dickinson biographers list two love interests in Dickinson's life at this time. Both were married, perhaps explaining the nuptial garden being sown in frost and failing to bloom. It never had a chance.

In "There came a Day – at Summer's full" [F325], Dickinson describes a lovers' pledge that they would be married eternally in heaven after death. Perhaps the Sign in this poem is the solemn vow made over each other's crucifix in the earlier poem. That might account for the final nostalgic wistfulness of the last two lines. The two young women that one summer were Queens, but only one was crowned. A lifetime must seem a long time to wait for the other one.

It's a lovely, haunting poem. More so, perhaps because while Sue's marriage began happily it did not long continue to be so. And Dickinson's isolation provided her access to her own searching imagination. Her bringer of light may not have been able to provide a public crown, but Dickinson internalized the light as few poets have. She found her own way after that, lit from within.


  1. Hi, your analysis of this is accurate, for the Christian believer, eternal life is awesome, and a far bigger prize, while some hopes have to be
    stored in this eternal cache, to be worked on later! It is in this hope that "lit from within" as you state-often come from.Best wishes , Charlie k
    best wishes, Charlie k

  2. I can't believe I actually saw the meanings develop in this poem! However, I interpreted the failed little lifetime to refer to Sue's monagamish marriage. I am a bit puzzled by the "June" crowning, though; Sue and Austin were married on July 1, per records?

    1. I'm very much convinced this poem was dedicated to the love of her life Charles Wadsworth, who went to live in San Francisco but she felt married to him, though 'without the sign'. His cottage 'faced the sun' cause it's hot in San Francisco when it's cold in New England etc... and he did die before her, unlike Susan.. just my 2 cents

  3. Absolutely Fabulous! Long have I puzzled over this one, and now it seems startlingly clear--what a discerning eye you have!
    The crowning need not be the actual ceremony's date but society's full recognition of her status, which would have been predominantly June, and besides, July screws up the meter and the rhyme!