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25 March 2012

He was weak, and I was strong – then –

He was weak, and I was strong – then – 

So He let me lead him in – 

I was weak, and He was strong then – 

So I let him lead me – Home.

'Twasn't far – the door was near – 

'Twasn't dark – for He went – too – 

'Twasn't loud, for He said nought – 

That was all I cared to know.

Day knocked – and we must part – 

Neither – was strongest – now – 

He strove – and I strove – too – 

We didn't do it – tho'!
                                                            F221 (1861)  190

Isn’t this just the way with new lovers? First one partner is bashful, or “weak,” and then the other. To be strong, typically, would be to resist temptation while to be “weak” is to give in.  But the poet here associates strength with the drive for sexual completion. First the narrator is the strong urging one. She invites him in. But then she has second thoughts, perhaps, while his valiant manhood asserts itself. And so, she, weakly trying to resist temptation, gives in to him and lets him lead her “Home.” That is a nice way of saying the union was deeply satisfying – more than just a gratification. It had the sense of rightness and belonging as coming home.
A famous pair of lovers who had
trouble parting at dawn
            The second stanza sets up a series of parallel structures: “’Twasn’t” this or that. The door was handy and the dark hardly mattered for they were together. The lover didn’t say anything – and that was just fine for the narrator because she didn’t want to know anything he might have said. They were, by that time, communicating on a deeper level.
            But then, like Romeo and Juliet who hear the lark sing and know they must part, the lovers hear the knock of dawn. Alas, both were “weak” and although they each tried to separate, neither had the strength. The last line has a delicious ambiguity: “We didn’t do it – tho’!” In today’s vernacular the line might be read as indicating that although they spent the night together they had no sex. Cuddle points! It seems more likely, though that when “Day knocked” and they tried to part, they couldn’t do it. They lingered together, the naughty pair, dawdling in bed doing who-knows-what.
            The poem lacks the Christian and maidenly virtues espoused by most good citizens of the day. It’s more in line with the delight Walt Whitman professed for all things physical. However, it may be that like Whitman, the chaste poet is simply celebrating the heady bliss of love and desire.
 I can’t help being reminded of a few verses from 2 Corinthians (6-10), though, and I wonder if Dickinson didn’t also have these verses in mind. Paul is writing to the Corinthians who are part of his long-distance ministry. He says he won’t boast about his “surpassingly great revelations” (a sly way of not boasting, no?) but instead will boast about his weakness, his “thorn in the flesh” – and don’t we all wish we knew just what that thorn was! Anyway, he reports that when he prayed to be free of the weakness that the Lord “said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And so Paul concludes that he “delights in weakness … For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Read with these verses in mind the poem becomes quite funny in its Paul-like conflation of weakness with strength.
            In any case, the zig-zagging role reversals of who is weak and who is strong – but how they both got what they wanted, is all quite delightful. I like the verb “strove” in the last stanza. It lends a Herculean sense to their struggle to separate. All in all it’s a light treatment of secret passion, as if two children got away with something forbidden and wonderful.  


  1. "He" is my shadow!

    1. I'd like that, except for the parting at Day. Wouldn't that be when the shadow would appear? I must admit that on re-reading this poem, I'm mystified.