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11 April 2012

What shall I do – it whimpers so –

What shall I do – it whimpers so – 

This little Hound within the Heart

All day and night with – bark and start – 

And yet –  it will not go?

Would you untie it, were you me – 

Would it stop whining, if to Thee – 

I sent it – even now?

It should not tease you – 
by your chair –
Or, on the mat – 
Or if it dare –
To climb your dizzy knee – 

Or sometimes – at your side to run – 

When you were willing – 

May it come –
Tell Carlo – 
He'll tell me!
                                                            F237 (1861)  186

It seems servile and pathetic to modern readers that a poet likens the love in her heart to a dog. Dogs are devoted to their masters (mistresses) and if they are tied up or otherwise not free to go to him they will whimper and whine.  They are not like contemporary women who just charge ahead and never sit around whimpering (ummm… not usually, anyway).
Who wouldn't untie this
sad little hound?
            The poet’s heart is like such a dog. When it is not near its beloved master it carries on “All day and night” barking, whimpering, and starting – straining on its leash. And so the poet would very much like to send it on its way. She asks permission first. To help it find acceptance, she promises the dog will not be a pest: won’t pester or tease for play, won’t try to climb up on Master’s lap via the tall, “dizzy knee.” What the dog will do is to run by Master’s side – if he is willing!
            Thus the narrator promises to be no trouble to the man she loves (assumed to be Samuel Bowles since this poem was among the poems and letters from Dickinson found in his estate). She softens the begging tone first by asking, “If you were me would you let this hound/love free?” rather than pleading that he let her free it. Then at the end she introduces the playful idea of Master telling her dog Carlo (named after a dog in Jane Eyre). Carlo can be the intermediary between Master the hound of the heart.
            In the first stanza she says that although the heart hound “whimpers so” it won’t go,” and the second stanza explains that it won’t go because it is tied up. The narrator has leashed her emotion, but like a dog, it strains against its tether.


  1. A few months ago local law enforcement rescued 56 Havanese breeder dogs from an outdoor puppy mill owned and “operated” by an elderly hoarder who should have retired long ago. Our visit to the Humane Society ended when Chico paraded before us, sniffed our hands, and bought a ticket to paradise. No more muddy kennel and kitchen scraps in a common trough for Chico.

    Breeders call Havanese “Velcro dogs”, and Chico’s hooks fit perfectly into my wife’s loops, inseparable if Chico had his way. But separations happen now and then, and when they do sad cries and whimpers fill the air. That’s why ‘What shall I do – It whimpers so - ’ hooked me.'

    For me, ED’s ‘What shall I do’ (F237) suggests not a note to the man she loves, but a little girl crying for her mother. In an 1870 letter to T.W. Higginson (L342), 40-year-old ED confessed "I never had a mother. I supposed a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled".

    Johnson (1955) tells us that one copy of this poem, which was signed "Emily", was sent to an unknown recipient. Franklin (1998) claims the signed copy was sent to Bowles in late spring 1861. ED’s meticulous biographer, Habegger (2001), cautiously says it’s a poem she “probably sent to Bowles”, meaning there’s no confirmed addressee. Several people handled ED’s poems and letters between her death in 1886 and Susan’s death in 1913.

    Given the absence of hard evidence and the content of the poem, my money is on Susan D as the poem’s recipient.

  2. ED copied Variant B, printed here, for her fascicle. Stanza 1 and 2 both end with question marks. Her original folded Variant A, sent to the unnamed recipient, combined these two stanzas, omitted the question mark after “it will not go”, and put “untie” in quotes. Variant A also combined the last two stanzas, and the penultimate line reads, “Shall it come?”, with a question mark. I prefer Variant A, which seems more immediate and clear.

    ED used Jung’s concept of our two-part personalities before in ‘We don't cry – Tim and I’ and ‘Two swimmers wrestled on the spar –’, 60 years before he did (see TPB comments on these poems).

  3. A close rereading of ED’s handwritten manuscripts of Variant A (folded and signed note) with Variant B (unfolded, unsigned copy for her fascicles) uncovered more variations between the two than either Johnson or Franklin noted. Most importantly, ED regularly underlined emphasized or metaphorical words in her poems (Sholes 2022, p. 216; TPB comment, 28 January 2023, F225). In this poem, F237, she underlines in Variant A, but not in Variant B.

    In my transcript of Variant A, below, ED’s underlined words are in quote marks and they have meanings other than their common definitions. Other variations between Variants A and B are in CAPS.

    Variant A with quote marks and CAPS:

    What shall I do – it whimpers so –
    This little Hound within the Heart
    All day and NIGHT WITH bark and start -
    And YET, IT will not GO –
    Would you “untie” it, were you me -
    Would it stop WHINING - IF to Thee –
    I sent it – even now?

    It should not TEAZE YOU –
    BY your CHAIR – OR, ON THE MAT –
    OR IF IT DARE – to climb your dizzy knee –
    OR – SOMETIMES AT your side to run –
    When you were willing –
    Shall it come?
    “Tell” Carlo –
    “He’ll” tell “me”!

    To my ear ,Variant A with the quote marks is more coherent and informative than Variant B. In particular, the final "me" in quotes implies that ED recognizes her persona has two psychological components, the adult poet and the "little Hound within the Heart".

    Scholes, Judith, 2022. '“My Business is to Love”, Address and Affect in Dickinson’s Circulated Poems', Chapter 12 in The Oxford Handbook of Emily Dickinson, Eds. C. Miller and K. Sánchez-Eppler, pp. 198-216.