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14 July 2012

I got so I could take his name –

I got so I could take his name –
Without – Tremendous gain –
That Stop-sensation – on my Soul –
And Thunder – in the Room –

I got so I could walk across
That Angle in the floor,
Where he turned so, and I turned – how –
And all our Sinew tore –

I got so I could stir the Box –
In which his letters grew
Without that forcing, in my breath –
As Staples – driven through –

Could dimly recollect a Grace –
I think, they call it "God" –
Renowned to ease Extremity –
When Formula, had failed –

And shape my Hands –
Petition's way,
Tho' ignorant of a word
That Ordination – utters –

My Business – with the Cloud,
If any Power behind it, be,
Not subject to Despair –
It care, in some remoter way,
For so minute affair
As Misery –
Itself, too vast, for interrupting – more –
                                                            F292 (1862)  293

Dickinson mourns the loss of a loved one; whether the loss is from death or desertion she does not say. The poem is situated in that stage of grief where profound pain is numbed and where faith is challenged—at least faith in a caring deity who listens to prayers.
antique forged staple and latch
            She begins in a conversational tone as if she were confiding in her best friend. At last she was able to say the departed one’s name without – and then come two powerful images—“That Stop-sensation” on her soul or “Thunder—in the Room. The “stop-sensation” is particularly fresh. A more clichéd phrase would say something about heart-stopping or breath catching. But Dickinson goes for the soul, a deeper part of our fabric and more eternal. That she could “take his name” without this incredible pain is “Tremendous gain.”  
            She is finally able to walk where they once walked together, and here we see the couple pacing a room together, arm in arm, turning at the corner. Previously when she walked in this same room and turned at that same corner without him her “Sinew tore”: the heartache made itself felt in her very legs.
            Her letter box has been another source of grief, but she finally got beyond that. She could “stir” the letters that accumulated, or “grew,” there without a gasp of pain. We must imagine the “Staples” of her day—large blacksmith-forged metal fasteners that would serve to hold carriage parts or large door latches together. It would be like a stake driven through the chest.
            The poet then describes the failure of her faith to comfort her. She “dimly” remembers there may be a deity that some call “God” who is supposed to ease us through extreme trials when “Formula” or normal remedies fail. She remembers how to shape her hands into a prayerful gesture. She took her “Business” to this deity. Her doubt is manifest in her description of it as a “Power” that may be in heaven—behind the clouds. It isn’t “subject to Despair.” It may care in some remote way for what she caustically says is “so minute affair / As Misery.” Yet she is not really hopeful. It is “too vast” to be interrupted any more.

This is another poem in the hymn form that Dickinson used so well. It is a hymn of sorts, but not one celebrating the goodness of God. Instead it is a chronicle of how we must slowly, incrementally, move through the pain of great loss all by ourselves. 


  1. So many commas! And not always for clarity’s sake (l. 27).
    In 293 also.

  2. Your words bring new light
    Dear Ms. Emily now to see
    Your joy mine received

  3. This bitterly agnostic poem reflects a sea-change in ED’s religious convictions, which had become firmly non-Christian by 1862. Oddly, her transition from conservative Christian dogma culminated after a seven-year (1855-1862) studentship/friendship with a conservative Presbyterian minister, Charles Wadsworth, of Philadelphia.

    Two eminent historians of ED’s life and poetry, George F. Whicher (1938) and Alfred C. Habegger (2001), conclude that Charles Wadsworth was the intended recipient of the Master Letters. In Whicher’s words, Wadsworth “was a friend of supreme importance in Emily Dickinson's life. [However, that does not] oblige us to assume that she was of supreme importance in his . . . . The supposition that any sort of lovers' understanding, no matter how attenuated, ever existed between them is inconceivable in view of his known character.” Before he “left the land” in April 1862 to preach in San Francisco, they corresponded numerous times and he visited her in Amherst at least once, in March 1860. There is some evidence he may have visited again in mid-summer 1861 (Whicher 1938). Apparently, after he moved to California, their correspondence ceased until 1869 when he returned to Philadelphia. However, ED’s love poems did not cease. Wadsworth visited her again in 1880, and after his death in 1882 she corresponded reminiscently with his good friend, James D. Clark.

  4. Whicher, George F. 1938. This was a Poet.

  5. ED’s handwritten first line in the only existing variant of this poem reads:

    “I got so I could hear his name – think – take –”.

    Obviously, the last two words are possible alternatives for “hear”. Apparently, Johnson (1955) made an editorial decision (without consulting the poet) that the third alternative, “take”, was the best choice for this line. Why would he assume that? My guess is that Johnson subconsciously associated the poem’s first line with the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain . . .” (Exodus 20: 7, KJV). ED’s “his” does not refer to “the LORD”, but to Charles Wadsworth.

    To my ear and way of thinking, ED’s first alternative, “hear”, would have been Johnson’s best choice. This potential confusion is important in reading the next poem, “A single Screw of Flesh” (F293).

  6. For the record, Franklin replaced Johnson’s (1955) “take” with “hear” in his 1998 publication of this poem (F292).