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19 March 2012

I shall know why – when Time is over –

I shall know why – when Time is over – 
And I have ceased to wonder why – 
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky – 

He will tell me what "Peter" promised – 
And I – for wonder at his woe –
I shall forget the drop of Anguish
That scalds me now – that scalds me now!
                                                                              F215  (1861)  193

By accounts in the New Testament, Jesus suffered a lot in his last days: betrayal, flogging, and crucifixion. Of these, Dickinson fastens on the betrayal as the great “woe” that by comparison shall  make her own “anguish” subside from a torrent to a “drop.” Peter was one of the inner circle, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, and in fact the one Jesus said would be the cornerstone of the church. On the night when Jesus was captured he had warned them that “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night.” But Peter was adamant:
“Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!”
Well, famous last words. Peter did deny even knowing Jesus three times during that long night.

Hopefully the "fair schoolroom of the sky" won't
have a duncecap!
 photo: British School Museum
That’s the background for the second stanza: Peter's broken promise of loyalty unto death. Despite this tip of the hat to the suffering of Jesus the poem is a bitter one. The poet begins with a bit of heavy irony: long after “Time is over” and she – deceased but apparently still self-aware – has ceased to question what happened in her life, Jesus will provide all the information she once desperately wanted. Too little too late! The irony is underscored by casting Christ as a schoolteacher explaining “each separate anguish” as if they were the articles of the Constitution. The “fair schoolroom of the sky” is certainly oozing with irony. We normally think of heaven as Paradise, the Pearly Gates, as some sort of bliss – not a place for school lessons.
            But then after giving an account of, and hopefully a rationale for the separate anguishes, he will put her earthly suffering in perspective by telling her of his betrayal by Peter. The “drop of Anguish” that the narrator will presumably forget is so painful in this life, though, that it “scalds.” Dickinson leaves no doubt about the intensity of the pain: she repeats the claim about scalding just for emphasis. She adds further emphasis by using three accented syllables in a row – “That scalds me now.”
            The wrenching quality of these last two lines is in contrast to the very quiet diction and pace of the first two. Here the alliterative “w” sounds hush the words and lengthen the sound: why, when, wonder, why. Long vowel sounds dominate, further stretching out the lines – as if Time itself has been stretched out: know, why, time, over, ceased, why. The repetitions of “why” set up the echo of “now” that is repeated in the last line.
            The feelings are just part of the human condition. We suffer but hope to someday understand; we hope time will lend perspective; we wonder if there is a Plan that dictates our grief. But, oh, the anguish now; the scalding pain now.  


  1. dunce cap is a funny touch here

    1. Thank you for your interpretation. How I can relate to realizing my mere drops of anguish in comparison to what so many others are or have experienced. Emily’s poems appear so simple sometimes, but are so deep when truly studied.

  2. What more is there to say, after Susan’s excellent explication? Well, one thing we are left wondering is what could possibly be the “drop of Anguish / That scalds me now – that scalds me now!” Elsewhere, in her eleven “Volcano” poems (see comment of November 20, 2022, on F165, ‘I have never seen "Volcanoes"—’), she tells us she has pent up memories deep inside herself that she cannot reveal without causing immense pain for family and friends.

    One clue about that “drop of Anguish” is “what "Peter" promised” in Line 5, which was eternal faithfulness to Jesus to the point of death, a promise Peter broke three times before daybreak. Note that ED puts the name Peter in quotation marks, clearly intending a different name. My guess is that a careful scan of early ED letters to Susan would find some mention of promised eternal mutual love, no matter what, and that ED, despite her positive letters and poems concerning Ned’s birth in June, felt deep abandonment.

    We have no evidence that ED shared ‘I shall know why – when Time is over’ with anyone, for good reason. In 1890 T.W. Higginson chose this poem along with thirteen others for publication in an article he contributed to the magazine, Christian Union. I doubt he understood its true meaning.