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05 April 2012

We don't cry – Tim and I

We don't cry – Tim and I,

We are far too grand – 

But we bolt the door tight

To prevent a friend – 

Then we hide our brave face

Deep in our hand – 

Not to cry – Tim and I – 

We are far too grand – 

Nor to dream – he and me – 

Do we condescend – 

We just shut our brown eye

To see to the end – 

Tim – see Cottages – 

But, Oh, so high!

Then – we shake – Tim and I – 

And lest I – cry – 

Tim – reads a little Hymn – 

And we both pray – 

Please, Sir, I and Tim – 

Always lost the way!

We must die – by and by – 

Clergymen say – 

Tim – shall – if I – do –

I – too – if he – 

How shall we arrange it – 

Tim – was – so – shy?

Take us simultaneous – Lord – 

I – "Tim" – and Me!
                                                            F231 (1861)  196

As children we might shut the door and take comfort in a favorite doll or teddy bear when faced with something frightening. In this poem Dickinson assumes this childlike persona to talk about the fear of death.
Who wouldn't find comfort with
this sympathetic little friend?
            The poet has her dignity and so this fear is played out behind closed doors. In fact the door is bolted tight even against a friend who might want to see what is wrong. The “brave face” shown to the world can be dropped safely then, with only the comforting little teddy bear to see. Dickinson personifies the toy just as a child would do. “Tim” doesn’t like to cry, either. Like the poet, he is “too grand” – a very droll comment on stoicism. Tim is “so – shy” that the poet knows he couldn’t face death by himself. But then, neither can she! Although they know they must die, because that is what “Clergymen say,” they will either die together – which is her prayer: “Take us simultaneous” – or else one will die of grief if the other one goes first.
            The fear in the poem is palpable. Not only are the two hiding their faces in their hands, but they are shutting their eyes and shaking. They don’t take refuge in dreams, either. They try to find comfort in religion: “Tim – reads a little Hymn – / And we both pray.” Yet it brings little solace. Even the mansions in heaven that Jesus promised, here child-portioned down to “Cottages,” are “so high” as to be sadly out of reach.
            These childish fears are really not to be laughed at. Who hasn’t wondered if they would ever attain those heavenly cottages, or feared they would die alone. Who hasn’t pondered the inexorable fact of coming death?
            To put the poem in biographical context, here is what Elizabeth Phillips wrote in a footnote in her book, Emily Dickinson: personae and performance:
No wonder Tim is scared
Edward Dickinson [the poet’s brother], attending a commencement celebration at Yale in 1850, brought home as a souvenir a reprint of The New England Primer. The poet clipped the illustration for the letter “T” and pasted it above a note and a poem she sent to Susan Dickinson [the above poem]. The primer reads: “Young Timothy learnt sin to fly.” The illustration is of “a youth pursued by an upright wolf-like creature with forked tale.” The note reads “My ‘position’!” and is signed “Cole” [a masculine identity Dickinson sometimes assumed]. There is also a P.S.: “Lest you misapprehend, the unfortunate insect upon the left is Myself, while the Reptile upon the right is my more immediate friends and connections.”

It's hard to decide, in light of the illustration, whether Dickinson was being tongue in cheek (as she was in the poem “A poor—torn heart—a tattered heart” that she sent to Sue along with a picture of  poor Little Nell) or whether she truly felt besieged by her "immediate friends and connections." Perhaps they were always after her to sign the Salvation pledge or otherwise mend her maverick spirituality. That would be why she had to bolt the door against friends. 

Some readers might prefer a Jungian reading of the poem where Dickinson is talking about two aspects of herself: one her normal persona and the other a "Tim" or masculine self (who is "so – shy" he doesn't come out in public).

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