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17 July 2012

Father—I bring thee not myself—

Father—I bring thee not myself—       
That were the little load—
I bring thee the imperial Heart       
I had not strength to hold—

The heart I cherished in my own       
Till mine—too heavy grew—
Yet—strangest—heavier—since it went—       
Is it too large for you?
                                                            F295 (1862)   217 [Savior! I’ve no one else to tell]

This is the heartache of a failed love affair. Here the poet turns to God asking him to take “the imperial Heart” that has grown too big. Dickinson writes of this heart as if it were a tumor, something that grew in her own healthy heart until it became “too heavy” and she didn’t have enough strength to bear it any longer.

            She is not offering her life to God, though. Only this tumorous growth. The tumor heart is “imperial”—it has come to rule her life. David Preest notices that she “described this heart in her second letter (L233) to her Master by saying, ‘God built the heart in me—Bye and bye it outgrew me—and like the little mother—with the big child—I got tired holding him.’”
            Her love for “Master” has become a swollen burden. She cannot keep it up. When she asks to surrender it to God she is either trying to give up the relationship that is draining her of strength or else Master has ended the relationship and she is hoping God can relieve her of the swollen heart’s weight.
            In the last two lines we see an assumption that God has indeed taken the burden from her. The imperial Heart has gone, but strangely, her own remaining heart is even heavier without it. And isn’t that the way with such heartache? We live with it and even nurse it until it becomes a part of our lives. When it is finally gone the absence is almost harder to bear. We’ve forgotten how to live without the pain.
            The final question, “Is it too large for you?” is another way of emphasizing the great weight of her grief. Perhaps it is even too heavy for God to bear.

Dickinson wrote another version of this poem that is directed not to God the Father but to his son the Savior. In this version she confesses that she has strayed so far from Christianity as to have forgotten him. “Dost thou remember me?” she asks hopefully.

This version follows:

Savior! I've no one else to tell—
And so I trouble thee.
I am the one forgot thee so—
Dost thou remember me?
Nor, for myself, I came so far—
That were the little load—
I brought thee the imperial Heart
I had not strength to hold—
The Heart I carried in my own—
Till mine too heavy grew—
Yet—strangest—heavier since it went—
Is it too large for you?


  1. Lovely. I also see another possible meaning layer in the first poem in "heavier since it went--is it too large for you?" the second "it" could also refer to Emily's heart ("mine"), in which case the ironic meaning is that Emily's "little" heart has outgrown the Father --the image of God against which she rebelled and elwhere called, "Their Father." In this second meaning layer, the loss of the "imperial heart" brings grief and also occasions a crisis of faith. The echoes the "attitude" she cops in the first line ,in which the usual, reverential prayer opening of Father is followed by, "I bring you not myself." and finally,echoes of the same nostalgic pain trailing a love you knew you had to kick out.

  2. As Susan K says, ED wrote two variants of this poem, both of which Franklin dates about early 1862. Variant A is a single stanza with twelve lines, all except the first two in past tense. ED sent this variant to Susan D. As far as we know, ED never accepted Jesus Christ as her savior, but she addresses Variant A to “Savior”. She also confesses that “I am the one forgot thee so - , Dost thou remember me?”. Contradictory? Not for ED! Maybe she believes Jesus Christ exists but not that he saves souls from Hell and sends them to Heaven. Go figure!

    In Variant B, placed in Fascicle 12, ED deletes the first five lines of Variant A and replaces them with a single line that addresses “Father”, the pre-Christian member of the Christian Trinity. Stanza 2 of Variant B also informs us that “The heart I cherished in my own, . . . it went” somewhere, my guess is San Francisco. It also got “heavier since it went”, perhaps “too large” for God to hold. Is ED getting blasphemous on us here?