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23 July 2012

Did we disobey Him?

Did we disobey Him?
Just one time!
Charged us to forget Him—
But we couldn't learn!

Were Himself—such a Dunce—
What would we—do?
Love the dull lad—best—
Oh, wouldn't you?
                                                            F299 (1862)  267

The poet seems to have been asked to forget a man or boy she loves. We don’t know if it is a lover, a good friend, or a nephew. She takes on the persona of a slow student who couldn’t do what was asked  because she “couldn’t learn!” She goes on to say that were the tables turned she wouldn’t reject the slow learner but rather “Love the dull lad” even more. The final line, “Oh, wouldn’t you?” seems to me to be saying, “Oh, can’t you love this dull girl more, too?”
            The tone and diction are playful rather than sad or self pitying. The writer does not seem to expect to get in serious trouble for disobeying the other party. The first two lines establishes the teasing tone. “Did we disobey Him?” Come on, just this once!
            The key word in the poem is “Dunce” and I think she’s cheekily suggesting that’s what the “Him” is. The “d” sound is scattered throughout the poem: disobey, charged, couldn’t Dunce, would, do, dull, lad, wouldn’t.

10 comments:

  1. I read Him as God and we as Adam and Eve. And the tone Is of a girl's innocence, still.

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    1. Maybe, but I can't recall where God "Charged us to forget Him".

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  2. with jesus, maybe

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    1. On re-reading the poem I'm thinking of the Master letters where Dickinson is both plaintive and playful. It might well be Master who counseled her to forget him -- and of course she wouldn't and couldn't. Anyway, this is just one of those poems Dickinson probably either meant for the drawer or would have shared with someone in on the reference. I just can't see it as Jesus who encouraged folks to come to him.

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    2. I don't see God or Jesus here either. I simply see someone who left, maybe a soldier (1861), or someone she fell in love with, telling her to forget him. But she disobeyed, just this one time and remarks how could we (I), forget him, the dunce!

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  3. This poem reminds me of "Heart we will forget him, you and I tonight."
    So I agree it was written about a lover. When she writes "Did we disobey him" and "But we couldn't learn" she seems to be talking about herself and her heart. He told her to forget him but she couldn't. And just like in the poem I mentioned, she personifies her heart. Both she and her heart are slow learners.

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  4. Emily has a couple of poems in which she playfully conflates her father and God the Father, and this poem strikes me in that vein. I take the first stanza to mean the narrator (or all of us, "we") was punished (banished "forget Me") for a small disobedience. "We couldn't learn" could mean either "we couldn't learn to forget him, because we love him" or "we couldn't learn to obey". It's a cheeky line that way. And the second stanza I think is saying back to her father, or God, don't be so harsh. If you were a boy and I was the Father, I would love the not so wise (dull) disobedient boy the best of all, after all.

    She has another -earlier- poem like this; saying to Father that if the situation was reversed she would be more Merciful to Father than Father is to her, but I can't recall which one at the moment.

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  5. I love these kinds of poems, this side of Emily, in which impudence and irreverence actually come out of compassion. At the show of her work at The Morgan in NYC there was a note for her nieces in which she compares herself to the witch of Endor. I had to look up the story in the bible. It describes a witch that takes compassion on Saul, feeds him, but also defies God by letting Saul know he will die in battle the next day. That seemed so Emily to me, not shying away from the truth, but with empathy. More about that note to her nieces here..http://thefanzine.com/tag/endors-closet/

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    1. Thanks for that link -- wonderful article. Marvelous letter.

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