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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.

  2. Hey Susan, my name is Adam DeGraff and I live in Queens. Sometimes my comments show up as anonymous and sometimes as D Scribe. I'm not sure why the difference. Anyway, I'm going through a poem or two a day and often read your glosses afterward, which are a joy. It'll take me a few years at this rate to get through them all, but it really gives you a sense of just how many there are. With someone as famous as ED I'm surprised there are not discussion threads on each of her poems. But I guess there are just sooo many. As much as I would like to read several interpretations of each poem though, I do like that it still feels like a soul-selected society. Often there is ONLY your interpretation to be found! This one is a puzzler. It does feel like a shadow riddle in the beginning, but I agree that the riddle loses its validity in the final stanza. And that ending is quite odd. Why is the door near? And what is "it"? I love your "young lovers" interpretation, but seems a bit out of keeping for Emily. The harder these are to crack, the more I want to try. That's a large part of their allure I suppose.

  3. okay, this one makes much more sense after sitting with it for a couple days. The "it" works primarily as "parting" of lovers. As in we didn't do it, we didn't part. Which is so sweet with that exclamation point. But then I do think she is playing a bit with the sexual pun, especially when the "in" of the second line "then he let me lead him in", which is hard not to read sexually. The third line the lover becomes virile and the woman passive and that leads to "home". This is the way, as Mando says.

    The door being near is because the door she is speaking of is on the body I'm guessing. It's a place, that door, that is normally dark, but when you are both "there", then it is no longer dark, or lonely. You see with your touch.

    That line 'twasn't loud for he said nought and that was all I cared to know' is wildly romantic. What is there to 'know' after being 'known? But also that quiet of that kind of love, that is the be all. But not the end all. Day knocks and we must part. And we really tried hard to do what was right and get up for work, we strove (to get up and -ironically- strive in the world) but we couldn't do it. instead we irresponsibly stayed together. Romeo and Juliet is a good illustration. This poem is wildly romantic.

    I sometimes try to imagine how Emily began to form a given poem. I can imagine that inverted push pull of the woman being strong and pushing the weak man to be strong so she can then be weak was the genesis of this one, the beautiful symmetry and irony of that idea. And it naturally forms itself rhythmically in language, so the language follows suit.

    Thanks for helping to guide me in, Emily. (And Susan.)

    1. Thank you for both your comments. I love your take on the poem as 'wildly romantic' -- I heartily agree! Reading this poem again (and again) I'm really l iking the Romeo/Juliet take. I imagine Dickinson reading the play (again), laughing at the young lovers (here I'm seeing Zeffirelli's movie and the playfulness between the lovers) and delightedly sitting down to write this poem.

  4. Susan K and other commenters on this poem (F221) have said well all that needs to be said, except for one thing. ED has a long track record of switching pronouns to disguise the identity Susan Gilbert Dickinson.

    "The story of ED and Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s 40-year relationship began about 1847 when the two 16-year-olds discovered their mutual love of poetry. Over the next few years that shared interest deepened into shared feelings, physical attraction, and lesbian love" (Comment, January 9, 2023, F209, ‘I lost a World - the other day!’). With that in mind, here is the translated version of F221, caps retained:

    She was weak, and I was strong – then –
    So She let me lead her in –
    I was weak, and She was strong then –
    So I let her lead me – Home.

    'Twasn't far – the door was near –
    'Twasn't dark – for She went – too –
    'Twasn't loud, for She said nought –
    That was all I cared to know.

    Day knocked – and we must part –
    Neither – was strongest – now –
    She strove – and I strove – too –
    We didn't do it – tho'!

    Susan K humorously nailed the last line: “when “Day knocked” and they tried to part, they couldn’t do it.”

    During the late 1840s and early 1850s (their late teens and early 20s), shared “sleep-overs” could explain their night together. If not then, for several weeks in April 1854 the two 23-year-olds “kept house” at Homestead while the rest of the Dickinsons visited Edward in Washington, DC. Yes, Susan and Austin were engaged then, but, “while the cat’s away …..”.

  5. It’s become increasingly clear that throughout her life ED’s only real romantic love was “Dollie”, Susan Gilbert Dickinson. She enjoyed Bowles’ sometimes risqué repartee and maybe even flirted for fun, but she had no serious romantic interest. And though her mysterious “Master” was probably Charles Wadsworth, she knew she could only imagine marriage with him, possibly in Heaven. Judge Lord came much later, outside my current purview.

    Given ED’s 1861 comment in ‘Title divine is mine’ (F194), it’s doubtful that she had ever experienced heterosexual sex. or even knew that men also “swoon”. (CAPS MINE).

    "Title divine, is mine.
    The Wife without the Sign –
    Acute Degree conferred on me –
    Empress of Calvary –
    Royal, all but the Crown –
    Betrothed, WITHOUT THE SWOON

  6. On the other hand . . . . . .

    Millicent Todd Bingham published this poem in 1945 in Bolts of Melody, 59 years after ED’s death and after the deaths of all other members of the Dickinson and Todd families. There is no original manuscript in ED’s handwriting; Bingham used a transcript her mother made before the original manuscript disappeared. Why did the original vanish and why did Millicent keep the poem private so long?

    Franklin dates this poem spring 1861, and Johnson dates it 1860, obviously on some basis other than handwriting. Reverend Charles Wadsworth visited ED at her home in Amherst during March 1860, transported there by his good friend, James Dickson Clark of Northampton, whom he was visiting during a trip from Philadelphia. The distance from Northampton to Amherst is 9 miles, about an hour’s buggy ride. Clark apparently had other business in Amherst because he left Wadsworth at Homestead.

    We don’t know whether Wadsworth and Clark returned to Northampton that night or the next day. We don’t know whether this poem describes a real, partly real, or imagined event in ED’s life, but that visit could be the basis of this poem.