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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!

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  5. Chronology complicates this confusing poem about what, when, and how events happened. Lines 1-2 happened summer 1850 [brackets and lineouts mine]:

    “After graduating from the Utica [NY] Female Academy, . . . Susan Gilbert [an orphan] had settled in Amherst, to be near [live with] her [married] sister. She entered Dickinson’s life in the summer of 1850, which the poet would later remember as the season “when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens.”


    Letter to Sue, L177, late January 1855:

    “Sabbath Day.

    “I am sick today, dear Susie, and have not been to church. There has been a pleasant quiet, in which to think of you, and I have not been sick eno' that I cannot write to you. I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began [summer 1850], on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens, and it breaks my heart sometimes, because I do not hear from you.”

    Apparently, in summer 1850, ("Your Vision [Sue's] — was in June —") the two 19-year-olds “wed” by promising fidelity “til death do us part”: romantic love, certainly; physical lesbian sex, probably; previous lesbian experience/experimentation/abuse at boarding schools, likely, Sue at Utica Female Academy and ED at Mount Holyoak Female Seminary (TPB F43, L30, F211, F360)

    As Susan K explains above, Lines 3-4 happened July 1, 1856, when Sue and Austin married. ED wanted Sue's “little lifetime” of intimacy (1850-1856) to last forever, but that wasn’t in the cards; ED says she “wearied — too” of trying. Of course, she was kidding herself; her love for Sue continued for the remainder of her life:

    “Susan knows she is a Siren - and that at a word from her, Emily would forfeit Righteousness —” (L554, Letter to Sue, mid-June,1878)

  6. Lines 5-6 imply ED’s innocence in Sue’s marriage to Austin, which is a copout; ED encouraged the match to keep Sue in Amherst after her horrible separation anxiety while Sue taught math in Baltimore for 10 months, 1851-52.

    “When Susan accepted a ten-month appointment as a math teacher in Baltimore in the autumn of 1851, Emily was devastated at the separation, but tried to keep a buoyant heart. “I fancy you very often descending to the schoolroom with a plump Binomial Theorem struggling in your hand which you must dissect and exhibit to your uncomprehending ones,” she teased in a letter."


    Of course, “Some one carrying a Light”, Lines 7-8, was Charles Wadsworth, as E.V.E. suggested above. Their epistolary relationship began sometime after ED’s visit to Philadelphia in 1855 and continued by mail until March 1860 when he visited her in Amherst. In 1860 or more likely 1861 he apparently visited again, “at Summer’s full”, when “the solstice passed —” (F325), and it was then that ED and Wadsworth exchanged vows to marry in heaven, at least in ED’s imagination.

  7. Lines 9-12 seem to imply “Our Futures . . . lay” far apart; in reality they were 300 feet apart, but ED imagined ‘Evergreens’ a “Cottage” warmed by sunlight, while

    “. . . Oceans — and the North [did play] —
    On every side of mine”

    ED’s alternative “did play” feels more alive than “must be”, but casual readers can’t enjoy that satisfaction. In actual Amherst, both houses sit side by side, on south slopes, but Lines 13-16 explain the comparison’s emotional truth.

    1. Thanks, Larry for the commentaries -- particularly the fleshing out of the timelines, the letters (!), and the Marginalian link.

  8. You're welcome. Thank you for your amazing explicatory jump starts.

    Each poem gets us closer to F685. That's scary to this denizen, but, as ED would say, the end may be only the beginning.

  9. Line 13: “'Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,”

    Sue’s garden produced Edward (Ned) Dickinson on June 19, 1861. Franklin estimates ED copied this poem into Fascicle 26 “about summer 1863”, so Ned was about 2. By this age ED was besotten with him.

    Line 14: “For mine — in Frosts — was sown —”

    ED sowed her garden “in Frosts”, figuratively for five years by planting her hopes in Wadsworth, only to have him abscond to California in May 1862 and literally in 1859 when an unusually early and warm spring in western Massachusetts fooled ED and all farmers into planting early. Everyone lost everything. ED threatened to sue God (F101, 1859):

    “I had some things that I called mine —
    And God, that he called his —”

    Lines 15-16: “And yet, one Summer, we were Queens —
    But You — were crowned in June —”

    The “one Summer, we were Queens” may have been early summer 1856 before Sue’s July 1 wedding, which marked the end of their 1850-1856 romance.