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28 February 2012

Teach Him – When He makes the names –


Teach Him – When He makes the names
Such an one – to say –
On his babbling – Berry – lips –
As should sound – to me –
Were my Ear – as near his nest –
As my thought – today –
As should sound –
"Forbid us not" –
Some like "Emily."
                                                            F198 (1861)  227

A very sweet poem Dickinson sent to Samuel Bowles and his wife  after the birth of their son Charles. The syntax is all askew so the poem bears a few readings to get it straight. There’s also a breathless quality with all the dashes and interjections. The poet makes two points: My thought is very near to that baby today (“as near as his nest”);and “ Please teach him to say “Emily” (or something like it).
Mother giving Scotts
to babbling baby. Yum!
            I like the “babbling – Berry – lips” because it’s both descriptive and  charming as well as alliterative and catching the babbling sound of babies. Dickinson takes a baby’s point of view for a moment when she writes “Forbid us not.” The quote comes from the New Testament when Jesus tells a group of people to let the little children come close to him and “forbid them not.”  I think she is saying “Oh don’t forbid that your baby and I be close.” This poem is one of the very few that Dickinson gave a title to.


  1. what does a thought being near to the baby symbolise?

    1. I think it's just descriptive. If the poem's speaker were as near to the baby as her thoughts are (she's thinking of him a lot), then the speaker would be able to hear what the baby is babbling (hopefully the poet's name, 'Emily').

  2. In Luke 18:16 Jesus spoke to his disciples about little children coming to him, “forbid them not”. In ‘Teach Him – When He makes the names’ (F198), ED alludes to Jesus’ command with, “Forbid us not”, apparently identifying herself with “little children”. Indeed, ED often referred to herself as a child. In 1870 when she was 39 and met T. W. Higginson personally for the first time, she spoke in “a soft frightened breathless childlike voice.” But there was nothing wrong with ED’s ego in her poem to Mary Bowles, asking her to teach her new baby to say something sounding like “Emily”, at least to ED’s ear.

  3. Here are two excerpts from “After great pain” by John Cody. There are many interesting insights in the book although I do not agree with his theory that ED suffered psychotic breakdown and that the main cause of her difficulties was her problematic relationship with her mother.

    The love alloyed with darker feelings was certainly much in evidence in January 1862 after Mrs. Bowles finally succeeded in producing a live baby and Emily wrote: "Shall you be glad to see us—or shall we seem old-fashioned—by the face in the crib? . . . We have very cold days . . . and I think you hear the wind blow . . . Dont let it blow Baby away." And in another letter to Mrs. Bowles, the tone of sibling jealousy strikes almost a threaten ing note: "Dont love him so well—you know—as to forget us— We shall wish he was'nt there—if you do—I'm afraid—shant we?"

    In the year of Susan's confinement she tried persistently and inappropriately to get Mrs. Bowles to name her son "Robert" after Robert Browning, with whose recently deceased wife, Elizabeth Barrett, Emily felt closely identified. Even after the child was named Charles, the poet referred to him as "Robert."