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15 July 2015

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night
Had scarcely deigned to lie —
When, stirring, for Belief's delight,
My Bride had slipped away —

If 'twas a Dream — made solid — just
The Heaven to confirm —
Or if Myself were dreamed of Her —
The power to presume —

With Him remain — who unto Me —
Gave — even as to All —
A Fiction superseding Faith —
By so much — as 'twas real —
                                                            F611 (1863)  J518

The narrator suspects the bliss of sleeping with her beloved happened in a dream. She takes the disappearance of her "Bride" philosophically, however, for she has the God-given gift of making dreams seem as real as if they had truly happened. And who needs the complications of reality if dreaming makes it so?
            The nighttime experience raises the usual philosophical questions: how can we tell dream from reality? Could the dream have been enfolded in another's dream – in this case, was the narrator experiencing her beloved's dream?

            Dickinson resorts to God: he is the only one who can "confirm" what really happened. But in addition to being all-knowing, God gives the narrator / Dickinson / all of us the ability to experience "Fiction" so vividly as to seem real. This hyper-real Fiction supersedes Faith.
The Dickinson Lexicon defines "Faith" in this line as "Knowledge; sentiment based on concrete evidence" and this makes a commonsense reading: the imaginative world is potentially more real than the knowledge-based. In this case, the dream creation was more "solid" than the empty bed.
I take that last stanza as Dickinson broadly accounting for her powerful poetic imagination. Whether it is a lover, an Abyss, or death, she experiences it as truly – more truly – than a 'real' experience. Dickinson does concede that God gives this ability "to All", but this strikes me as an afterthought.
I am reminded of of Marianne Moore's famous "Ars Poetica" in which she writes that good poetry should have "imaginary gardens with real toads in them".  That is the landscape Dickinson inhabited, too.

Judith Farr argues convincingly that the poem is written with Sue in mind. In The Passion of Emily Dickinson, she has this to say: ""When Lavinia first gave [Sue] Emily's manuscripts, Sue marked them in pencil according to theme: Love, Nature, Death, and so on. She marked this poem with the initial 'S', appearing to acknowledge its relevancy to herself" (p.160).
            I don't think a biographical interpretation adds much to the poem, however. Certainly Dickinson spent no effort on fleshing out the beloved. She is just an exemplar of the poem's greater point about Fiction vs. Faith.



  1. The biographical interpretation allows to see the poem through another lens. If one posits Sue for "My Bride," then one must at least entertain Austin for "Him" in the third stanza. Austin then "[g]ave" Emily the "Fiction" of Sue. For Austin courted Sue, and in doing so he succeeded in bringing Sue to the Evergreens. Though he might have brought Sue for all in the family, it was Emily's "Fiction" that trumped the "Faith" that Austin and Sue had for one another (at least in this poem and in Emily's heart). Her power to presume makes this dream or fiction solid or more real than happenstance.

    1. That whole Sue / Emily / Austin triangle is fascinating. It's hard to imagine just how complicated and difficult things got when Austin took Mabel Loomis Todd as his lover.

      I wish ED had kept the notes and letters she received from Sue (and other correspondents).

      I think the shadow of Austin can be read into this poem. But the "Even as us all" is so broad as to be surely the provenance of God.

    2. I see your point.

      Some of ED's poetry is so general that it's difficult to posit a life event that inspired the poetry. The phrase "My Bride had slipped away -" can be interpreted as a euphemism for death. If one does accepts this interpretation and compares it the literal interpretation of a lover leaving a partner for another partner or an old one, it opens up the poem slightly for making an analogy between the Austin-Sue-Emily triangle to Father-Son-Holy Spirit trinity.

      The way I'm currently reading the last stanza is "she remains with him." (Sue remains with Austin). "Who unto Me -" can be interpreted in two ways: Austin (as godhead--father in holy trinity) gave everyone the ability to meet Sue by courting her; or, Sue (as a Jesus-like figure) gave ED a fiction. A fiction that ended up effecting all that were close to Sue or ED ("even as to All-." Or, one could consider this poem giving unto all the message of the love ED felt for Sue; thereby, ED immortalizes Sue.

    3. Though it may escape the point of the poem, it is really fun, and titillating, to imagine this as a kind of key to the lovers triangle here. I'm imagining Sue sneaking away from Austin in the middle of the night, laying on Emily's "heart" and leaving a dream-like memory the next day. And Zeferino's idea here, that Austin "allows" it, is not beyond the realm of imagination. The way I would read the ending with this narrative is that Austin gave Emily the fiction of being married to Sue, which is better than mere faith, because of it seeming so real. In other words, the fiction, or idea, that they are together seems so real that it is better than any faith in something one couldn't actually touch.

      How Austin gives that to "all" is hard to imagine, though maybe Zeferino's idea that it is in allowing Sue to court and be courted by whomever she likes.

      Even if this misses the mark of this poem by a mile, and it probably does, it creates a scintillating scene in one's mind. Even the wild free-loving Romantics might be a little jealous of this scenario.

  2. Wonderful blog! Thank you so much for your elucidations!

  3. As always, the comments here are a great stimulus to further reflection on what ED is talking about in her difficult great poems. But I think the comments here are missing at least some of the poem's real import. The first thing to say is that almost every line of the poem is ambiguous and hard to paraphrase -- which of course makes sense in the dreamlike setting that the poet gives us, and indeed is an important part of the poem's beauty. In particular, the phrase "or if myself were dreamed of her -- the power to presume" is hard to nail down: the conditional "if", the reflexive pronoun, the passive voice combining with the closing preposition, the ambiguous dash -- it makes my head spin. Exactly. And although the syntax in the final two lines is easier, the meaning again is more than a little unclear. What is given to the poet is "a fiction superseding Faith" -- an interesting and paradoxical utterance -- and compounding this, we are told that the fiction supersedes the faith "by so much -- as 'twas real". Well, Ms Poet, exactly how much is that: a lot or a little or none at all? We're left hanging, and my sense is that the poet feels herself hanging a bit as well.

    1. Marlin, my head was spinning on this one, too. She wields grammar like a rapier. Would love to see more such explications on grammar and syntax!

    2. "She wields grammar like a rapier." Love that.

  4. PS -- As for biographical readings of the poem ... who cares?

  5. Ah, this poem! So much to think about here, so much meaning to tease out. A poem written by a woman about a wife, and you are already in interesting territory. Then dreams made real, the power to presume, followed by He, the Creator, making the dream so good, the Author making the fiction seem so real, that it creates heaven in us. Faith, if fiction is good enough, isn't necessary. The proof is in the pudding. "The heaven to confirm." That insight is so perceptive and enlightening.

    My mind is blown at both the personal love-triangle angle of this poem and its philosophical depths. And since Sue marked it for her, I don't doubt that it may be both. Good on you Susan, for inspiring it, and to you, Susan for helping us understand it.

  6. ED had two loves of her life, Susan (Gilbert) Dickinson, emotionally from 1850 to ED’s death in 1886, probably physical lesbian love from 1850-1856, and Charles Wadsworth, emotionally/spiritually but not physically from 1855 to ED’s death. This poem immortalizes both relationships, Lines 1-8 with Sue and Lines 9-12 with Wadsworth.

    ED’s memories of her early, pre-Austin years with Sue must have seemed like a dream after they ended. ‘[Sue’s] sweet Weight on my Heart at Night’ “had scarcely deigned to lie —” when Sue, a lifelong Christian, “slipped away” “for Belief’s delight” when she married Austin on July 1, 1856.

    The amazing revelation of this reminiscence poem is that by late 1863 ED had realized that Wadsworth’s charisma as a person and a preacher was “A Fiction superseding Faith —/By so much — as 'twas real —”. For a time she thought of him as God, but came to realize his ardent conservative Christianity was “A Fiction”, not for her, but she continued to love him until the day she died. (For a compelling contemporary description of Wadsworth’s charisma in the pulpit, which ED apparently could not resist, see my TPB Comment 4, 12/7/2023, ‘I tried to think a lonelier Thing’, F570)