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28 July 2011

I never lost as much but twice

I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!

Angels—twice descending
Reimbursed my store—
Burglar! Banker – Father!
I am poor once more!        
                                                               - F 39 (1858)  49

Various learned people have speculated as to who was buried in the sod, but as there is no consensus and as it doesn't fundamentally affect the poem one way or the other, I want to just dive into the poem itself. The most striking part, of course, is where she calls God "Burglar! Banker–Father!" It seems a bit blasphemous. But we understand that when someone is torn with grief they call out wildly. This poem has the feel of a wild call of grief.
     The first line provides the key to the story: I paraphrase it as "I've only lost as much as I just lost two other times before." The loss alluded to here is echoed more powerfully in the last line where she is 'poor once more!' The first two losses were to death. There is an interesting ambiguity about 'the door of God'. Is she standing before the graves, calling that the door -- the gateway, perhaps, to heaven? Or is the door simply a figurative one? At any rate she was beggared by the loss of two friends or dear ones and went to the very door of God for relief. 
     The poem is structured around an economic conceit that is further developed in the second stanza. While in the first, the poet was beggared by loss, in the second her storehouse of dear ones is reimbursed--by descending angels, no less. One thinks of angels delivering babies rather than beaus, so perhaps there were births to compensate for the deaths. But then there was a third loss that once more beggars the poet. We do not see her standing as a beggar before God here but almost lashing out at Him. This loss is probably not to death but to separation or alienation and that can be more embittering. She first calls God a Burglar: he has robbed her of a dear one. Then, 'Banker' -- He can call in the loan or grant reimbursements; He can raise the interest rate; He knows the solvency of her soul. And finally, she calls out to God the Father. 
     There is actually a bit of scripture for the odd Trinity: The Lord's Second Coming is to come 'like a thief in the night' according to the apostle Paul. We are also instructed in the New Testament to store up our treasures in Heaven--with the divine Banker. And Father is the familiar divine Patriarch.

What gives the lines extra punch, besides the alliteration and the whiff of blasphemy, is the syllable emphasis. While the rest of the poem is in garden-variety iambs, this line with the trochaic emphasis on the first syllables: BURglar! BANker--FAther demands to be read with some heat. The poet may be 'poor once more' (a reinforcing internal rhyme) but she is not meekly beggaring herself this time. 


  1. I find it very helpful specially the Burgler allusion to the Lord's second coming.