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17 September 2020

A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!

 A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!
Its fee – to be of Gold –
Had Nature – in Her monstrous House
A single Ragged Child –

To earn a Mine – would run
That Interdicted Way,
And tell Him – Charge thee speak it plain –
That so far – Truth is True?

And answer What I do –
Beginning with the Day
That Night – begun –
Nay – Midnight – 'twas –
Since Midnight – happened – say –

If once more – Pardon – Boy –
The Magnitude thou may
Enlarge my Message – If too vast
Another Lad – help thee –

Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be –
And His – in solid Gold –
Say Rubies – if He hesitate –
My Message – must be told –

Say – last I said – was This –
That when the Hills – come down –
And hold no higher than the Plain –
My Bond – have just begun –

And when the Heavens – disband –
And Deity conclude –
Then – look for me. Be sure you say –
Least Figure – on the Road –

                         Fr 673 (1863)  J400

This love poem tumbles out in a rush, mirroring the speaker's urgency in sending a message to her beloved. The first line reminds me of a town crier in the market square calling for a trusty boy for an important mission. It also reminds me of the hyperbole of Shakespeare's desperate King Richard III who famously shouted, "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" The kingdom-for-horse trade is something like the goldmine-for message. The breathless speaker is willing to  squander not only gold, but diamonds and rubies to let her lover know that she will be faithful forever.

She seemingly cannot tell him herself, for the road to him is an 'Interdicted Way': strictly forbidden. Perhaps this is a secret affair and the speaker and lover cannot be seen together. And then there is the timing. Something happened, or at least began, at Midnight. And now, seemingly quite soon after, perhaps even the same day, the speaker is swearing eternal love –not delivered personally nor by a letter, but told by a private messenger.  
Dickinson might have had
Oliver Twist in mind

        The midnight mystery reminds me of  "A Wife – at daybreak – I shall be –"  where the speaker says, "At Midnight – I am but a Maid – / How short it takes to make a Bride" (Fr185). The rest of that poem hints at Death as the bridegroom, or perhaps Jesus come to escort the Soul, but although the sense of wonder and anticipation is similar, I read nothing in the current poem of seductive Death, or some joyful union with a Deity. In fact, part of the speaker's pledge to the beloved is that she will still be waiting for him after heaven disbands and the Deity is ended. Wow.
        The poem begins in excitement and then builds steam. She pauses for a moment in the fourth stanza in an aside to the anticipated Boy. She thinks of and asks Pardon for the Magnitude of what she is trying to say. She thinks it might be too much for one person, so lets him know he can get another Lad to help out. Now the first Boy gets diamonds and his helper 'solid gold' (but 'Rubies – if He hesitate').
And what is the message? In the second stanza she charges the messenger to 'speak it plain', but it seems anything but plain: 'so far – Truth is True?' The question mark probably results from the sentence construction beginning with 'Had Nature'. At any rate, the speaker is true and, at least so far, Truth is True. It's rather gnomic. 
        Next, in answer to a supposed question about what the speaker has been doing since that fateful midnight, the Ragged Child messenger is to begin with what she has done since 'That Night – begun', specifically at Midnight. 

But after all that about being true and Truth, and the supporting detail, the speaker instructs the messenger(s) to give her pledge of faithfulness. It is quite beautiful: when over geologic time the hills have eroded to plains, her commitment will just be beginning. When cosmic time itself runs out, if he looks for her he will see her, the 'Least Figure – on the Road.'  This last bit is in keeping with Dickinson's fondness for portraying herself as little, in poems and in letters (e.g., her self description to her Preceptor Thomas Higginson, "I am small, like the wren").

The poem is written in common hymn meter, using the short meter variant: instead of alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter, only the third line of each stanza is in tetrameter. Think of the hymn, 'Blessed be the tie that binds'. The third stanza breaks up the tetrameter line into two lines I think for dramatic purposes: 'Nay – Midnight – 'twas –' gets its own line and, indeed, it is a  dramatic line. You can picture the speaker stopping, thinking, and then giving the declaration.
The first stanza is an exception in that it is not in the short meter variant. The first line,  "A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!", needs all those syllables to kick the poem off – and it gets some extra energy from the 't' alliterations: Tongue, to tell, true. All those 't's and one syllable words – plus the exclamation point – just shout, 'Big News'!

The tone and subject remind me very much of 'Going to Him! Happy Letter!' written in 1862. It's also a 'Tell Him' message, but without the Ragged Boy. 


  1. A wonderful poem! And a beautiful explanation.

    I love the line "Had Nature -- in Her monstrous House" (although I am a bit unsure of the meaning). I think she is asking if nature has a child who for recompense can serve as messenger. Nature is the one to "tell Him", "Charge [him]" to "speak it plain" that "Truth is true". The question mark, I think, refers back to the question that begins with "Had Nature . . .".

    But what does "Truth is true" mean? Perhaps it is ED being playful. In the first line, the speaker says "I am true!" -- literally, I am truth -- the speaker and true are equivalents. There is no separation between the actor and the act. "Truth is true" -- the speaker is true -- true blue, through and through.

    It is here where the poem begins a marked split between a present message that "I am true!" and an "Enlarge[d]" message that, like many of ED's poems, expands experience to encompass "multitudes" (as Whitman might have said). The limits of "so far" collapse and, hinged on the momentous "Midnight", the present expands beautifully to encompass all of time.

    1. I love your insight about hw the poem expands the 'so far' to 'encompass all of time.'

      The first couple of stanzas are just ambiguous. I tried on your gloss and wasn't completely satisfied and then tried out my own ... and wasn't completely satisfied. I'm not sure if Nature (in her abundant vastness) is telling the boy that truth is true and that the speaker is charging Nature to speak it plain; or if it is Nature, as you suggest, charging the Boy; or if the Speaker is rhetorically wondering if vast nature had a single child to take the message (and she charges such a one to speak it plain) that Truth is True.

      I find the Truth is True playful as well, particularly with the 'so far' qualifying it. But, yes, as you say, the point so desperately wanting to be made is that the speaker is true blue.

  2. Possibly the dialectical elements of the “ragged child” and the “Gold” function as intensifiers for each other, as dialecticals often are intended to function.
    “Truth is true” seems like a delightful tongue-play that a poet would find hard to resist.
    Her scatter-brained directions to her “Boy” sound like Portia’s directions to her boy Lucius who was supposed to take a message to Brutus in Julius Caesar, which conveyed that she was so shaken by the circumstances that she became scatter-brained and tongue tied. Imagine! ED tongue-tied!