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20 September 2011

Heart not so heavy as mine

Heart not so heavy as mine
Wending late home—
As it passed my window
Whistled itself a tune—

A careless snatch—a ballad—
A Ditty of the street—
Yet to my irritated ear
An anodyne so sweet—

It was as if a Bobolink
Sauntering this way
Carolled and mused, and carolled—
Then bubbled slow away – 

It was as if a chirping brook
Upon a toilsome way 
Set bleeding feet to minuets
Without the knowing why – 

Tomorrow –  night will come again—
Perhaps – tired and sore—
Oh Bugle, by the window
I pray you stroll once more!
                                                - F 88 (1859)   83

The poem is about the power of music (which ‘has charms to heal the savage breast’, as William  Congreve would have it), and indeed the poem itself is full of sound and meter effects that align it to music as well.  Let’s have a go.
            Stanza one sets the scene. The poet is at home, despondent, but then hears someone whistling a tune outside. To capture this in senses as well as in words, Dickinson begins with heavy, tired-sounding meter—a couple of spondees (“Heart not”, and “late home”) combined with the breathy “h” sounds that slow everything down. Then we shift to the more quick and merry “w” alliterations: “Wending”, “window,” “Whistled”.  The poem goes apace from here, much more chipper.
            I particularly like the quartet of “B”s that anchor the poem. First we have, in stanza two, a “ballad” that is so sweet that, in stanza three, the “Bobolink” might have sung it before he “bubbled” away. The sound is cheerful “as if a chirping brook” were chirping it’s dance tunes (stanza four). Then in the last stanza we have the “Bugle” – which is another way of referring to the whistler. So there are the Ballad, the Bobolink, the brook, and the Bugle. How could anyone stay depressed with all that action going on outside the window?


  1. Hello Susan,

    I've been a lover of Dickinson's poetry for years. Searching for some info in the web I accidentally came into your blog, which I find one of the most interesting & complete resources I've checked online.

    I read Emily's poems very often, and I'm trying to translate them into my mother language. Your comments seem very helpful for me to deeply understand what she ment.

    I encourage you to go on with this wonderful project you've started; I've already suscribed by email and hopefully I'll receive updates soon.



    1. Thank you, Leticia -- it is a labor of love, for sure! I just came back from a month's vacation -- and really missed studying the poems.

  2. Considering that Susan lived next door, I spy a different kind of musician!

    1. Well, except for the portrayal of someone wending his/her way home at night whistling a ditty of the street -- which doesn't sound like the fine lady of society Sue had become by this time. But ED did in another poem or two (can't recall exactly) liken Sue to a bird.

  3. This isn't at all a nice little poem about the power of music. It makes much more sense to see it as a strongly-felt Civil War poem about a troop of young men, one of them whistling as they head off to join the battle (hint:the bugle). The poem is about the sad contrast of the whistling and the bobolink's cheerful music against the horror of impeding death--"set bleeding feet to minuets" is the high point of the poem and evokes a "danse macabre". She hopes the bugle and the troop of young men will pass her way again because that will mean they haven't died.

    There's a lovely musical setting of this poem by Elliott Carter.

    1. I'm interested but not convinced. She claims her heart is heavier than that of the whistler wending his way home. I don't see troop or war behind those words and images. Her mood is central to the poem; the whistler's carrolling puts it into relief.

  4. True,her heart is heavier--if you're heading off to war you are likely to try to convince yourself that everything will be OK. And certainly she's writing from her point of view.

    I was a bit hasty in my previous post and left out some of the scenario I envision. There's a man whistling in the street, which seems quotidian enough. But "Ah,Bugle!" so there's clearly something military going on,and I infer a camp of recruits setting off (to allow for the later return). Since she was writing either during or just after the war,I don't think you'll convince me that she meant the bugle to refer to either the whistling or the boblink, neither of which sounds like a bugle. And though she was far from the war,she was not far from the recruiting.

    She knows that the (young)man will soon be heading off to war,and thus contrasts current beauty with the horror of war.

    Aside from the bugle,I think the second difficulty with your interpretation "set bleeding feet to minuets without the knowing why". That phrase conveys agony,not an assuaging of depression or grief,even temporarily. And "without the knowing why" again suggests war to me--the recruits,like recruits always,would have signed up with only a vague understanding of war aims. It may also signal Dickinson's attitude to the war.

    I may be quite wrong (I often am) so please argue back. This is fun.

    1. Okay, you have 'bleeding' and 'bugle' that suggest war. But while whistlers might render a 'careless snatch' and ditty of the street, regiment buglers do calls to arms, reveille (sp?), and maybe a marching tune. Our whistler is 'wending' not marching. No, I suspect that 'bugle' is used to suggest that like a call to arms or a morning wake up, the whistling will give her spirit strength and energy.

      As for the bleeding feet, we have a traveller on a dusty road having a long hard journey -- hence the bleeding feet. But the brook soothes and delights so much that the weary traveler feels like dancing. In the sort of analogy you describe, it should be the troops whose feet are bleeding -- but that doesn't work in that stanza.

      So, while like a war horse to the bugle, I get all alert with possible Civil War references, I still see the poet, tired and discouraged traveler on life's journey, lifted by a cheery whistle.

      Over to you.

  5. Susan, I agree with you that war isn't being specifically evoked here, but don't you think "set bleeding feet to minuets" sounds like putting words to music? Here the feet are metrical units and the minuets are otherwise wordless tunes. If the feet are bleeding, perhaps that's because they are ill-rhythmed--after all, it's just a street ditty. The brook is singing for no particular reason ("Without the knowing why"), just like the Bobolink's carol and the Heart's ballad. That makes more sense, I think, than dancing on bloody feet.

    It's also interesting that the bird is bubbling and the brook is chirping. Or that the bird is sauntering instead of the passerby, who whistles. All the roles are juggled.

    I love your project here, and I look forward to reading more.

    1. Ah, the sound of the ditty helps her unruly metrics -- a sly dig at her mentor Higginson who complained about her 'gait'. I love the reversals you point out! Thank you!

  6. Preest points out that ED sent a copy of this poem to Kate Anthon and Bowles, and suggests that it "hints" that the absence of one or both is the cause of her "sorrow," while longing for the return of "blissful" evenings spent with Kate in earlier years.

  7. Comments 3 and 4 suggest that ‘Heart, not so heavy as mine’ is “a strongly-felt Civil War poem”. However, ED wrote the poem in 1859 and the Civil War began in 1861.

    Commenter 5 points out that ED cleverly reversed the sounds of a brook and the Bobolink: “It was as if a Bobolink / / bubbled slow away! / It was as if a chirping brook / upon a dusty way”.

    The name Bobolink may be anonomatopoeically derived from its “bubble-ing” song (you can skip the ad):

    My question about the poem is why all the whining: “Heart, not so heavy as mine”, “my irritated Ear”, “night will come again, perhaps, weary and sore”. Get a grip. Somebody whistle a cheery tune.

    1. Now, now. For me the poem is a nice contrast between melancholy and cheer. Most of the poem is about the cheer.

  8. During the four months since my “poor-Emily” comment above, I’ve learned that ED’s poems and medical history provide compelling evidence that she experienced recurring migraine headaches. The ultimate causes of migraines still elude science, but correlative events, including warning signs, central stages, and aftermath are well documented. Typical symptoms include headaches, nausea, and sensitivity to light, sound, and smell.

    Wikipedia provides a 35-page article explaining what we know about migraine, including a 2-page summary (

    Emily, I apologize.

    A recent scientific review of 4 peer-reviewed articles on music and migraine published 1980-2021 reported that “The outcomes regarding the effects of music therapy on patients with migraine were inconsistent.” (Hall, S and H. O’brien. 2022. A review of the use of music therapy in the treatment of migraine. Music and Medicine: an Interdisciplinary Journal. 14(1):62-68.).

    Apparently, a whistled tune outside her window worked for ED.

  9. What about this manuscript in the Emily Dickinson Archives? There are several small differences in the text.

    1. e.g. toilsome road, evening tired and sore, by the window, I pray you stroll once more.

    2. Thank you for spotting this and bringing it to my attention. I've corrected the poem. The version you responded to was Johnson's, not Franklin's. I often go to WikiSource, which uses Johnson, to copy and paste the longer ED poems. In this case I neglected the next step -- making the necessary changes to align with Franklin's versions (and more recently, to Christanne Millrer's).

      I definitely prefer the 'toilsome' to the 'dusty' and the 'stroll' to the 'pass'.