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14 August 2011

I've got an arrow here.

I've got an arrow here.
Loving the hand that sent it
I the dart revere.

Fell, they will say, in "skirmish"!
Vanquished, my soul will know
By but a simple arrow
Sped by an archer's bow.
                                             - F 56 (1859)

The pen is mightier than the sword or, as here, arrow. The poet has received a “Dear John” type of letter and although it fells her she still values the missive as it came from a loved one’s hand. Another old saw comes to mind: “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Dickinson wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters, eschewing the banal for the deepest observations and feelings of her heart. And so a letter can either transport or slay her. There is nothing ‘simple’ about a slaying letter. One might read the poem as describing a letter shot from Cupid’s bow, the recipient being vanquished by love. While I’d rather think of the poet receiving a love letter, I’m on the side of the “Dear John.” The poet already loves the recipient, so there wouldn’t be much to vanquish. Also, it is not interesting to ‘revere’ a love letter from one you love. It is (moderately) more interesting to revere the one that brings terrible hurt.
My favorite part of the poem is the offhand opening line: “I’ve got an arrow here.” It’s only later than we realize how deadly it was.

1 comment:

  1. The only version we have of “I’ve got an arrow here” is a transcription by Mabel Todd, who was Austin Dickinson’s long-time lover and the first editor/publisher of ED’s poetry, beginning in 1890. Todd notoriously removed or mutilated any mention of, or allusion to, Austin Dickinson’s wife, Susan Dickinson, in ED’s poems, probably to protect her own and her lover’s public reputation. Franklin’s note on this poem informs us that “The mutilation of "One sister have I in the house" separated a piece of manuscript containing "I've got an arrow here" on one side and the last six lines of "'Lethe' in my flower" on the other”. Franklin dates "I've got an arrow here" as early 1859.

    We have no idea what Todd altered in her version of “I’ve got an arrow here”, but given Franklin’s date on this poem, which is identical to his date of ED’s “If I should cease to bring a rose” and the known date of ED’s third letter to Reverend Hale, Valentine’s Day of 1859, ED’s original version of “I’ve got an arrow here” probably referred to a Valentine love letter (Cupid’s arrow) that Susan Dickinson sent ED on Valentine’s Day, 1859. Thus, ED probably composed “I’ve got an arrow here” on or a few days after February 14, 1859. ED died in 1886, leaving Todd free to expunge any incriminating words in ED’s love-poem reply; all we have left is Todd’s bowdlerized seven lines.

    Note: There is abundant evidence, most of it published but some newly reported in my replies on "The Prowling Bee", that ED and Susan Dickinson had a long-standing lesbian relationship that began before Susan and Austin's marriage, another reason for Todd's censorship. Apparently, ED, Susan, Austin, and Mabel lived in a long and consensual ménage à quatre.