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28 April 2024

Me from Myself — to banish —

Me from Myself — to banish —
Had I Art —
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart —

But since Myself — assault Me —
How have I peace
Except by subjugating

And since We're mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?

   -F709, J642, Fascicle 33, 1863

There are a few ways you can read the first stanza of this poem. The first two lines are relatively easy. They say something to the effect of, “I’d like to banish me from myself, if I had the art to do it.” Most of us understand this desire. We often get in our own way, especially when we become self-conscious. But then the 3rd and 4th line come in and the syntactic trouble starts. The dash after "Art" could be a comma or a period, depending on how you read it. Is the art of banishing the self meant to protect All Heart from the self, or to protect the self from All Heart? The entire poem depends on how you choose to punctuate those lines. Another tricky formulation is the use of the word “unto” in the 4th line. What’s that word doing? Again, your reading of the poem depends on how you read that preposition. 

After giving the lines much consideration, my best guess would be to read the first stanza as saying, "I would like to banish me from myself, if I had the art, but, alas, my fortress (my self-defenses) keep me from becoming All Heart."* 

When the poet declares she would banish herself from herself if she had the Art to do it, is she being humble? Is she admitting that she doesn't have this Art? Maybe. But in this poem Dickinson shows us that, in a way, she DOES have the Art to do it. She has the perfect medium for such a thing: poetry. A medium is the thing in the middle between the writer and the reader. In poetry, it's instructive to remember that the "I" is never just a signifier for the person of the poet. It is the reader’s "I" too. Dickinson, though she wrote the most private poetry ever written, also wrote for a general public. Through her "Art" she does manage to banish herself from herself. But of course this means she is also doing the inverse too, which is allowing other IN.

There are many ways you could define the "me" and the "myself" that this poem wrestles with, and it's instructive to read other analyses of this poem out there, as each of them attempts to come to terms with what these two "Monarchs" might be.** David Preest, for instance, says, confusingly, "Emily is both a soul or conscience or consciousness and a person." Indeed it is hard to write about this poem without being equally confusing. I don't know if Preest's term "soul" is the right one to use, but I do keep thinking about Yeats’ poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” in tandem with this one. A dialogue between self and soul might be one way to characterize what is going on in this poem. 

For me the most instructive take-away from this poem is in thinking about the difficult necessity of subjugating consciousness in order to have peace. "How have I peace/ Except by subjugating/ Consciousness?" There are a thousand ways one might subjugate consciousness. There are potentially harmful ways, like drinking alcohol for instance, or watching mindless TV or doom scrolling on social media, etc. I suppose any addiction might be seen as a way to subjugate consciousness. But there are also healthy ways to do it. Pouring yourself into work might be one way, which, for a poet like Dickinson, would mean focusing on the poetry itself. Another art of consciousness-subjugation might be meditation, which for me has been a powerful one. I would say that subjugating consciousness is, indeed, a very good description of what meditation is. Your conscious mind rules you, willy nilly, but through meditation you can learn to get out from under the "assault" of your consciousness. When the mind stops ruling, then the heart is revealed. In other words you become "All Heart" when you make yourself impregnable to the constant assault of consciousness.  "Unto All Heart" -what a large phrase that is. All, meaning full, pure, everyone's. 

  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

*Correction: Even though I really like this take on the poem, some new information has caused me to doubt it. Larry B, in the comments below, has pointed out the alternative line to "Unto All Heart" provided by Dickinson is "To foreign Heart." This means, to me, that Dickinson was indeed wishing she could shut heart OUT of the fortress of her mind, not shut her mind away from her heart. This makes sense, especially if we look at the dozens of poems preceding this one. She was heart-sore and wishing she could shut herself off from her beloved. This is a good example of how easy it is to bend a Dickinson poem to say what you want it to say instead of paying close attention to what it actually says. Part of the reason I was mislead was because it was hard for me to imagine that the same poet who could write, "When all Space has been beheld/ And all Dominion shown/ The smallest Human Heart’s extent/ Reduces it to none" would wish to protect herself from All Heart, but that iteration of Dickinson wouldn't arrive for a few more years. This one wished for peace. 

**Compare this poem to F693, a poem which seems to be about looking in a mirror, but could also be about looking into a lover's eyes. The “mutual Monarch” in this poem echoes the line “Neither would be a Queen” in that poem. In both poems there is a possible reading in which the other “me” is a lover, the way we sometimes see ourselves reflected in the eyes of another. Both selves (lovers) are Monarchs and reign. 


  1. This bit of Joyce Carol Oates’ essay on Dickinson, “Soul at the White Heat: The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry” is worth mentioning here:

    Emily Dickinson is the most paradoxical of poets: the very poet of paradox. By way of voluminous biographical material, not to mention the extraordinary intimacy of her poetry, it would seem that we know everything about her; yet the common experience of reading her work, particularly if the poems are read sequentially, is that we come away seeming to know nothing. We would recognize her inimitable voice anywhere-in the
    "prose" of her letters no less than in her poetry-yet it is a voice of the most deliberate, the most teasing anonymity. "I'm Nobody!" is a proclamation to be interpreted in the most literal of ways. Like no other poet before her and like very few after her-Rilke comes most readily to mind, and, perhaps, Yeats and Lawrence— Dickinson exposes her heart's most subtle secrets; she confesses the very sentiments that, in society, would have embarrassed her dog (to paraphrase a remark of Dickinson's to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, explaining her aversion for the company of most people, whose prattle of "Hallowed things" offended her). Yet who is this "I" at the center of experience? In her astonishing body of 1,775 poems Dickinson records what is surely one of the most meticulous examinations of the phenomenon of human "consciousness" ever un-dertaken. The poet's persona-the tantalizing "I" —seems, in nearly every poem, to be addressing us directly with perceptions that are ours as well as hers. (Or his: these "Representatives of the Verse," though speaking in Dickinson's voice, are not restricted to the female gender.) The poems' refusal to be rhetorical, their daunting intimacy, suggests the self-evident in the way that certain Zen koans and riddles do while being indecipherable. But what is challenged is, perhaps, “meaning” itself.”

  2. Oates’ essay illuminates our common quest to interpret each ED poem in a way that speaks personally to us. Ultimately, to quote Oates, a top-gun reader of ED if ever there was one, "what is challenged is, perhaps, “meaning” itself.”

    Thank you Adam for sharing Oates' essay.

    ED’s alterative words for Stanza 1 [in brackets] may help clarify one of its many meanings:

    “Me from Myself -to banish -
    Had I Art-
    [Impregnable] My Fortress
    [To foreign] Heart –”

    Here's one personal take:

    If only I had the ability to banish my heart from my brain, my poetry furnace would be impregnable to another person’s heart, especially an impossibly “foreign Heart” like Wadsworth’s.

    But if my heart assaults my brain, how can I find peace except by numbing my heart’s desire, “subjugating / Consciousness”.
    But since my heart and brain both rule my life, how can one subjugate the other,

    “Except by abdication –
    Me – of Me -?”

    Which will it be?

    ‘Me from Myself - to banish –’ peers into a lover’s inner quarrel of head and heart. Its three stanzas’ first lines surpass in psychological imagination anything written anywhere before 1863, except by the Bard himself.

    “Me from myself to banish // But since Myself - assault Me – // And since We’re Mutual Monarch”.

    And then there's that last stanza, which simply leaves mid-19th century poetry in its dust:

    “And since We're Mutual Monarch
    How this be
    Except by Abdication -
    Me - of Me -?”

    What universe does ED come from? Miranda said it best:

    "Oh brave new world,
    That has such people in't."

    1. Oy, I wish I'd seen that alternative word choice of "To foreign Heart" before. I loved my reading of the poem, but was pretty wavery on it to begin with, and seeing this word choice puts me back over to the other side where Dickinson is wanting to protect her brain from her heart, not her heart from her brain. Dang. I mean it's possible that she chose "unto All Heart" as an alternative to bring in this ambiguity, but more likely she was just heart-sore and wishing to protect herself. I do so love "Unto All Heart" as an ideal toward which to subjugate consciousness that I'm loathe to give it up. But best to stick with the Poet. It's one thing to make the poems personal, but it's another thing to bend them out of shape to do it.

    2. It's hard to imagine that the same poet who could write "When all Space has been beheld/ And all Dominion shown/ The smallest Human Heart’s extent/ Reduces it to none" would wish to protect herself from All Heart. But then again, she was in despair at this point, so I suppose it's not so surprising.

  3. By 1863, ED had failed twice at love affairs, first with Sue and second Wadsworth. If we use Franklin’s editorial word choices in Stanza 1,

    “Me from Myself — to banish —
    Had I Art —
    Impregnable my Fortress
    Unto All Heart —",

    and a personal interpretation, the poem could be about either Charles Wadsworth or Susan Dickinson, because Sue’s heart was certainly not “foreign” to ED.

    It would not surprise me if ED wrote two variants, one for Sue, the other Wadsworth.