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15 March 2020

I took my Power in my Hand —

I took my Power in my Hand —
And went against the World —
'Twas not so much as David — had —
But I — was twice as bold —

I aimed my Pebble — but Myself
Was all the one that fell —
Was it Goliah — was too large —
Or was myself — too small?
                                                            Fr660 (1863) J540

After experiencing a significant failure we might wonder if the problem lay in our shortcomings or in the scope of the problem itself. Dickinson poses the question here in a tone of rueful whimsy. It's the voice of a woman looking back and shaking her head. She seems to like that her younger self was valiant like David – and bolder than David, yet confesses that while David prevailed, she has fallen.

The famous biblical David-versus-Goliath story unfolds 3000 years ago. A shepherd boy brings provisions to his brothers who as part of the Israelite army are gathered for battle against the Philistines. But the army is paralyzed by Goliath, a mighty and gigantic warrior who daily challenges them to produce a champion for single combat. Day after day the Israelites lose heart. David sees all this, steps up with his slingshot, and slays the giant with one stone.
Michelangelo's David stands ready
with slingshot in one hand and stone
in the other.
         The speaker's Goliath is the World. Her 'pebble' is her unspecified Power. The analogy might simply be Dickinson aiming the force of her poetry against a restrictive religion, and a conformist, paternalistic society. It might also be her unique poetry against a field of those she may have considered lesser contemporary poets. Or it might be something else entirely. The poem is open to interpretation. Dickinson, as she often does, leaves explanatory details out, creating universality.

What I find  most interesting about the poem is its claim about boldness. David was pretty bold, but he had one specific enemy in Goliath. And although David's fighting experience was limited to the lions and bears that preyed on his flocks, the experience was precisely useful. If he could bring down big predators at a distance with a slingshot, he could bring down a Goliath. Distance was key. No one wanted to engage the giant in a sword and shield battle.
        Dickinson, on the other hand, took on the World.  This would require much more boldness than David needed because the World, even a limited aspect of it (such as poetry or New England), is infinitely complex and dynamic. Her Power could not be as precisely targeted.

That leads to the central question of the poem about the cause of failure. Can blame even be apportioned in terms of bigness or smallness? David's success shows that to be a false choice after he used a slingshot against a giant. But I don't think Dickinson meant the question to be parsed so carefully. Once again she waives the details so we can wonder along with her if in our own failures and disappointments we might have prevailed if only we had been … bigger, smarter, stronger.


  1. On days like today, when the "Goliath" of the Coronavirus looms large, this poem feels especially poignant. Thanks for posting!

  2. I read ED's boldness to be her confidence in the power of her poetry. She tried at points in her life to publish -- to achieve recognition. This, I think is the battle she refers to where she "was all the one that fell".

    The last two lines are questions. They are both the same question -- because large and small are relative -- they operate within in the same conceptual framework. Because ED operated outside of the conventions of contemporary poetry, she cannot be measured by the poetic standards of her day. She is not smaller than Longfellow or Coleridge -- she is something different entirely. This, at least, is my answer to the final questions in this poem.

    1. That all makes sense, but to me the sense of failure -- of falling, anyway -- is poignant, even sad.

  3. I think, and hear me out… That this could be a poem about the metaphysics of individuality and “the world.” She is twice as bold to take on the world because the world is an extension of her, yet outside of her, leading to a bigness or smallness that can not be measured. When she aims the pebble at the world, she is one who falls, because she does not yet see that the changes to the world she wants to make reflect a certain magnetism to changes she wants to make in herself. She is still learning the power of her own hand as the creator of all experience. One that ends up encapsulating consciousness and all its perceptions as we know it.

  4. In support of what you say, Susan, about ED "aiming the force of her poetry" against the world, I read the first line as literally about the act of writing, of setting pen or pencil to paper. Regarding the second stanza, I'm less inclined to read it as a confession of failure and more about a loss of self that comes with being swallowed up in a sense of immensity - something that may accompany for her the experience of writing and her relationship to language and the world as enveloping environments.

    1. Yes, that seems right -- A loss of control, even, faced with the themes and ideas she grappled with -- and that pose unanswerable questions.

  5. Consider the possibility of a gendered analysis; at the time Dickinson writes this, women’s rights and equality were nascent or less. She wields tremendous power with her poetic talent, but as one woman writing in (and sometimes against) a male-dominated world, she is defeated by prevailing social and gender norms.

  6. I can see that in the poem and mentioned the paternalistic society. It's hard to think that she felt defeated by the norms you mention. By 'hard' I mean 'sad', not difficult to imagine.

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  8. “In My Father's house are many mansions” (John 14:2),
    Or, as Susan K. explicated, “The poem is open to interpretation”. Here’s an interpretation [brackets mine]:

    “I took my [writing/thinking skills] in my Hand —
    And went against [a famous, married minister 16 years older than I] —
    'Twas not so much [courage] as David — had —
    But I — was twice as bold [because I was naïve] —

    “I aimed my Pebble [cultivated, poetic correspondence]— but Myself
    Was all the one that fell — [fell in love, but failed to woo Wadsworth]
    Was it [Wadsworth]— was too large —
    Or was myself — too small?”